H-1B Exemptions Sought

The tech industry is redoubling its lobbying efforts to raise the cap on the number of foreign nationals permitted to fill skilled jobs in the United States.

The tech industry is redoubling its lobbying efforts to raise the cap on the number of foreign nationals permitted to fill skilled jobs in the United States. With slim hope of seeing legislation passed this year exempting the industry from visa limits on foreign workers, IT companies are setting the groundwork for the next Congress to raise the cap further.

The current limit on visas for foreign professionals with special skills, known as H-1B visas, will prevent the industry from hiring the workers they need next year, according to IT companies that include Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Intel Corp. and Oracle Corp. The software companies joined manufacturers and several universities in warning Congress last week that U.S.-educated experts will be forced to work for the countrys competitors because the H-1B quota for next year was reached last month.

The visa initiative primarily targets software developers, according to Dan Johnson, general counsel for the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which Microsoft joined this month.

"Our engineering schools are not producing the numbers we need to stay on the competitive edge," Johnson said. "Long term, we should look at the education aspect and why we are not producing enough Americans to fill these jobs, but were trying to run businesses now."

The H-1B program covers a wide range of professions, including doctors, lawyers, architects and accountants, but it is the IT sector that is clamoring for more leeway. With the economic downturn, the cap was reduced to 65,000 hires at the end of last year, from 195,000 the previous year.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about Congresss decision last year to drop the H-1B limit.

Labor organizations oppose expanding the H-1B program, arguing that it contributes to the countrys unemployment. The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America, is fighting to retain the cap at 65,000 visas.

"The high-tech economy has lost more than 700,000 jobs in the past three years," said Marcus Courtney, president of the alliance. "Theres an oversupply of skilled tech workers. The unemployment rate for people with engineering degrees is greater than the general unemployment rate."

Increasing the number of foreign skilled workers in the United States is a way to lower wage scales, Courtney charged. "This is a move to drive down wages across the entire industry," he said. "Were talking about a wholesale migration of guest workers into the economy, and theres no employee crisis."

While continuing the fight to retain the cap, Courtney said he fears that the prospects for raising it next year are good. Despite a high level of unemployment among skilled American IT workers, they have not developed political clout.

"High-tech employees are not organized," Courtney said. "For the most part, white-collar employees felt that being highly skilled and highly educated was enough for them to gain job security."

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