Need to Import Workers Sparks Debate

A gathering to unveil a Brookings Institute report on demand and geographic dispersal of superskilled workers in the U.S. on H-1B visas sparked debate Wednesday over the need to import workers and led to a deeper discussion on immigration, wage depression, and gaps in domestic educational training.

The real challenge may be how the U.S. educational system, in the face of state budget cuts and stubbornly high dropout rates among Latinos and blacks, will create a stream of workers to compete for these jobs.

Jared Bernstein, senor fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and former chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said that while high-skilled immigrants are important to the country, he challenged the notion of a worker shortage, even in the fields the study pinpointed, namely those workers in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and in the regions with need, particularly in the Northeast triangle of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

"The [H-1B] looks to me like an inelegant solution to what I don't even know is a problem," he told a large gathering. "Inelegant because there's no labor market test. The evidence is that it creates downward wage pressure." Demands for H-1B visa workers and labor demands are two different things, he cautioned.

An H-1B worker is a highly skilled employee who enters the U.S. under a specialty visa and is sponsored by his or her employer to work for a certain period of time. Workers are required to have a bachelor's degree or higher. An exception is made for fashion models.

Critics of the H-1B visa have said that such temporary workers lower wages. An H-1B visa holder, according to a 2005 Center for Immigration Studies, are paid $13,000 less on average than their U.S. counterparts. The CIS is a nonprofit organization that calls for immigration restrictions. A 2003 report by the General Accounting Office showed that for some H-1B visa holders, their actual salaries were the same or lower than the salaries reported by their U.S. counterparts.

The reality for Silicon Valley tech companies is another one. These companies are locked in wars for top-notch employees, sometimes shelling out large bonuses as recruitment incentives, said Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University. Let the market decide, he insisted.

"Are we going to close our minds and say we want to protect these workers whose skills are out of date?" he said. "Or say we want to compete and make the pie bigger for everyone by having more competitive companies, by having more Googles, Microsofts, and Intels."

The report shows that fees from H-1B visas go to train U.S. workers in the jobs where there's a high demand and shortage of skilled workers. Between 2001 and 2011, the government has collected $1 billion from the H-1B visa fees. Most of the monies go for short-term training programs that last two years, high school, and post secondary scholarships.

But the metro areas that have the greatest demand for H-1B visa workers, don't always receive the greatest distribution of funds. Compared to their share of visas, the low-demand metro areas received almost four times their share of funds, according to the report.

"The bottom line, H-1B supported training does not match H-1B workforce demand at the regional scale," Neil G. Ruiz, senior policy analyst at the Metropolitan Policy Program, and leading author of the study. The funds would be better served if the training targeted specific occupations in high-demand regions.

He said half of doctoral degrees in the sciences are earned by students from abroad. Currently, Asia produces 56 percent of the world's engineering degrees, compared to Europe's 17 percent, and the United States's 4 percent, Ruiz said.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced a plan to allocate $1 billion to create an elite corps of STEM educators to boost student achievement in these areas. The program would bring an additional 10,000 science, math, technology, and engineering teachings to classrooms across the country.

Among findings and policy recommendations from the full report called The Search for Skills: Demanding for H-1B Immigrant Workers in U.S. Metropolitan Areas:

  • Create an independent commission that can recommend timely changes to immigration policy to respond more quickly to high-demand job markets.
  • Target H-1B visa fees to geographical areas to upgrade the skills of the existing workforce, especially where needed.
  • The six most in-demand occupations are computer specialists; engineers; health practitioners and diagnosticians; financial specialists; business-operations specialists; and life scientists. 
  • While the bulk of the demand for H-1B workers from the Northeast accounts for 16.3 percent of the visas nationally, other regions like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Washington, D.C., comprise the other top metropolitan areas with a high demand for these workers. These cities requested between 14,000 (4.6 percent) to 18,000 (5.5 percent) of the total H-1B visas.