Two years ago, Congress and President Clinton approved an increase in the number of foreign IT and other special workers allowed into the United States each year under the so-called H1-B visa program by nearly 70 percent, to 195,000. Many large IT employers had been pleading for the increase, calling it a short-term fix to a critical shortage. We agreed and urged lawmakers to not only speed H1-B approvals but to also let workers remain in the country to seek citizenship.
Much has changed since then. The stagnant economy has led to reduced IT spending, which has thrown thousands of technology professionals out of work. The IT work force in the United States shrank by 528,000 positions last year, according to a recent survey by the Information Technology Association of America. Many of that number are highly experienced professionals whose skills are now being wasted. Ironically, many are also H1-B visa holders who, having been laid off, face a sudden return to their home countries.
While we still believe that raising the H1-B cap was the right thing to do two years ago, continuing to import large numbers of foreign IT workers in the current economic downturn makes little sense. It serves only to pervert the dynamics of the market for IT talent, making it seem futile for IT professionals to acquire new skills and helping many employers avoid taking responsibility for retraining IT staffs.
Legislators should accelerate the schedule for lowering the H1-B cap to its pre-1998 level of 65,000—now due to take place next year. We urge legislators to re-evaluate the program and to seriously consider HR 3222, legislation proposed by Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., now before the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims. That bill would reduce the H1-B cap to 65,000 per year and tie future increases to the unemployment rate.
At the same time, employers must get serious about helping the growing population of unemployed and underemployed IT professionals gain the new skills they say they need.
The time for stopgap solutions to the IT skills gap problem is over.
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