FOREIGN THREAT? Tim Hebert, CEO of Atrion, said despite some viewing H-1B visas as a “threat,” he supports the program.
PBN FILE PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
By John Larrabee
John Condon, president of Stonewall Solutions, will tell you it’s no easy task finding the right people to work at his software-development company. “We need candidates with technology skills that are pretty unique,” he said. “To find them, we have to cast a wide net.”
Stonewall, with 10 workers split between offices in Providence and Marlboro, Mass., has solved its personnel problem by casting that net overseas. Most years the company has one or two employees brought to this country with H-1B visas, which allow employers to hire foreign workers for temporary jobs.
The visas – good for three years and then renewable for three more – are reserved for workers with special skills and degrees that might be scarce in the U.S. talent pool. Supporters of the program argue the United States is training too few computer programmers, engineers, scientists, financial analysts and medical professionals, a shortfall they say is part of the much-debated national “skills gap.”
Condon bristles at the suggestion that visa workers take jobs from Americans. “They make our company more competitive,” he explained, “and I think that strengthens America’s economy. Without them, I think we’d fall behind.”
While the H-1B visa program has been around since 1990, until recently news coverage has been scanty. This year, however, an immigration-reform package under discussion in Congress has put H-1B visas in the headlines. The package, which has passed the Senate, includes a proposal to almost triple the number available, raising the cap from 65,000 visas to 180,000. In addition, the federal immigration service could issue another 20,000 in years that see a dip in unemployment for management and professional occupations.
There’s no shortage of those critical of the plan. They charge business interests – chiefly high-tech companies – have exaggerated the skills gap because they have found visa workers, mostly from less-affluent Asian countries, are willing to work for less money. Federal law requires employers to pay visa workers the “prevailing wage,” but there’s little oversight, and companies can defend their wage rate by commissioning their own surveys. Some critics argue H-1B visas may actually exacerbate the skills gap, because college students may be discouraged from entering technical professions when they see jobs going to temporary workers from India and China.