The Morning After the Industrys H1-B Binge

This may be the worst high-tech job market since the recessionary years of the early 1990s. Virtually every major company is downsizing.

This may be the worst high-tech job market since the recessionary years of the early 1990s. Virtually every major company is downsizing.

Cisco Systems Inc., for example, at first announced 8,500 layoffs and now thinks the number will go much higher. Sun Microsystems Inc. will shut down altogether for a week in June. Even the headhunters are hurting: According to one recruiter I know, 40 percent of agencies in the Silicon Valley have gone out of business in recent months.

No, most of those who had work as programmers last year have not been laid off (yet). But those who have lost their jobs—and those who make a living through contract programming—are finding that the market has suddenly shrunken severely.

So why do employers still cry about the IT skills crisis? Employer pickiness, always stringent in the past, has reached new heights. Industry lobbyists say the job market is still good for those "with the right skills," but what they dont tell you is that employers keep upping the ante on skill sets. Whereas before a job ad would say something such as "must have three years of experience with Java," the new requirements are more like "must have Java, Perl and XML in real estate applications settings, residential real estate preferred."

Things are especially difficult for new graduates. Employers are still attending campus recruiting sessions to maintain visibility, but their actual hiring has decreased substantially.

And most employers seem to have cut down on hiring interns. This is alarming in that, in recent years, most employers did not consider a new graduate for a programming position unless he or she had worked previously as an intern.

Even industry lobbyists admit that the weak job market of the early 1990s caused university computer science enrollment to fall, and we now run the danger of that happening again. And yet, when the next high-tech boom comes a few years from now, the industry lobbyists will again wring their hands and ask, "Why cant Johnny program?" blaming declining computer science enrollments on some alleged deficiencies of the American educational system.

The lobbyists know that pushing the education button is a great way to obfuscate an argument. But the fact is that Congress now knows it was hoodwinked by the industry into enacting a large increase in the H1-B work visa program last October. Layoffs began soon afterward, and the employers can hardly plead surprise, given that the NASDAQ stock index had been plummeting since March. Meanwhile, some companies, including Dun and Bradstreet, have been laying off programmers and replacing them by contracting with outsourcers that use H1-B workers.

We now have 400,000 H1-B workers in the country whom the industry said it had "desperately" needed, and their presence will obstruct the programming careers of U.S. citizens and permanent residents for years to come.

At the very least, Congress should require H1-Bs to return home after losing employment or becoming benched if they cannot find similar work within 15 days. But the real solution must be to drastically scale back the H1-B program itself, limiting it to importing only "the best and the brightest."