Bob Miano's Blog

An Executive journal

H-1B: Immigration Reform Should Not Prevent Brain Gain

As we see and hear from the TV, radio, newspapers and Internet each day, the United States Senate is deep in the throes of debating immigration reform legislation. For many people, this debate centers on border security and the flood of undocumented workers crossing U.S. borders. And while it’s true that the majority of the Bill under scrutiny today does focus on border security, residency issues and a guest worker program targeting lower-skilled labor pools, the legislation is zeroing in on one critical issue affecting some higher skilled labor pools: the H-1B program.

H-1B has become a hotly contended issue for many lawmakers today eager to protect U.S. jobs. However, by cutting off the flow of skills to technical sectors (science, engineering and technology) that are already deep into a talent shortage, the Congress will deal a much bigger and longer-lasting blow to American competitiveness and to the ability of American businesses to create job opportunities.

The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa category. It allows American companies to seek temporary help from skilled foreigners who have the equivalent U.S. bachelor's degree in categories considered to be a "specialty occupation." Why is H-1B so contentious? It is blamed for displacing substantial numbers of experienced American science, engineering and technical professionals and for lowering wages in skilled professional categories.

I have personally witnessed this misdirected frustration toward H-1B myself in the halls of Congress. Just recently I joined the NACCB to lobby against the reduction of the H-1B visa program. One congressman I met told me he was against the H-1B program because it was taking away jobs from IT workers in the United States. The ironic part of the story is that unemployment stats from the U.S. government contradict this claim. For the first quarter of 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported unemployment rates for some IT occupations, such as computer and information systems managers and computer software engineers, at below 2%. Proving how high the demand is for IT professionals today, most IT occupations saw unemployment rates well below the national unemployment rate, which hovered between 4.4% and 4.6%.

If the supply and demand gap for highly skilled talent is allowed to grow too wide, America will find itself quickly losing its competitive position in the science and technology fields. That gap is already beginning to spread due to the most recent visa cutbacks. For 2004, 130,497 H-1B visas were approved and there were 116,927 approved for 2005. The total number of visas issued was reduced to only 65,000 H-1B visas beginning in 2006.

The demand for H-1B employees is so high that American corporations filed for H-1B applicants six months in advance of when 2007 visas were issued. For the 2007-2008 year, over 130,000 applications from U.S. corporations have already been received, far exceeding the quota of 65,000. Despite this undeniable demand and clear evidence of a talent shortage, the Senate is considering curtailing the program further and limiting the potential of American ingenuity and growth by cutting off much-needed resources. A lack of resources at home is not only a recipe for mediocrity, but also more incentive for U.S.-based businesses to move their operations abroad.

American farms cannot run without water. American schools cannot teach without teachers. American technology businesses cannot lead the world’s most competitive industry if they are crippled by a lack of skilled technical experts. While support for increasing the H-1B program may seem like an anti-American labor position, a little research shows that it is about helping American labor pools and businesses by ensuring American companies can compete, innovate and grow in order to create more opportunities for all. H-1B is in fact a promoter of brain gain, not a creator of brain drain.