Having covered the information technology and electronics industries for a long time, I’m very sensitive to the H-1B visa controversy. This is the government program whereby foreign nationals can be hired by U.S. employers under a special visa.

H-1B exists because industry claims there’s a labor shortage in the world of technology. On April 1, the 2008 allotment of H-1B visas will likely be used up in a matter of hours. Bill Gates says more H-1B workers should be allowed to work in the U.S. because industry needs special skills that domestic workers can’t always deliver. Many tech folks believe this program siphons valuable jobs away from U.S. workers, and that companies use H-1B mainly to cut labor costs. H-1B opponents say U.S. companies should focus more on talent and less on skills. The controversy rages on. In the current InformationWeek, Rob Preston takes the most responsible view of H-1B that I’ve read to date.

In Are you a complainer or part of the solution?, Preston holds both sides of the debate to the fire. He suggests that industry needs to be more respectful in how it deals with domestic job applicants, and more active in preparing U.S. workers to fill the jobs now going to foreign workers who have “special talents.” And he says workers need to take more responsibility for their careers by addressing the needs of employers more effectively.

I agree with him. There are some legitimate gripes — but few solutions — coming from either side. Ask The Headhunter has always stood for one big idea: Workers and employers both need to create new value and profit for one another if both are to succeed. To clear the talent shortage/lack of loyalty logjam, we need to start floating and discussing ideas that produce profit — for everyone.

Which comes first, more H-1B visas, or greater investment in U.S. workers? Preston starts with two good suggestions at the end of his column. Read his last three paragraphs. He poses a series of questions that are actually a challenge to upend the way we all work. He’s suggesting a new ethic based on profit. Whether you’re an employer or a worker, what are your answers?

  1. I think I have a pretty good idea of one of the issues that causes a rise in H1B hiring. It’s the cluelessness of members of upper management who have no IT background. I’m currently working on a major conversion project that is now just under two weeks from going live, for a rather small company (about 35 employees). I am the only IT person in the company, which by itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the nature of our business and our current setup requires a ton of custom software development. This is why I was brought here two years ago, as we already had an IT generalist who handled infrastructure (network and email administration, desktop support, etc.). The IT generalist left the company (and so did his hand-picked replacement), and now I’m stuck fending for myself as they haven’t replaced that position.

    I started the conversion several months ago, which entails reengineering almost all of our custom software, creating a new database, and redesigning many reports. From the start, I complained many times to upper management that I needed the IT generalist to handle support issues while I worked on the development tasks, but got nowhere. Why did I stick it out, you might ask? Because I am a person of integrity, and I refuse to leave my company in a lurch. Besides, I have an agenda. I can use this experience and that gained by taking the project a bit further in a few months (I’m planning a web-based version of the order entry application I’m rewriting, and should be able to pull that off this summer or fall) to get my next job (but don’t tell my boss!). We’re due to go live April 1, and I’m pretty much on track to make that happen, despite the setbacks.

    Now, where do the clueless bosses fit in? Last week I was in an impromptu meeting with the company president, the sales director, and the heads of purchasing, accounting and the warehouse. The company president and sales director were concerned about making the (totally artificial) deadline, so they suggested that perhaps I should bring in another software developer to help out. I can see the expressions on your faces already, those of you in software development. Cringe. Yell. Scream. Run out the door as fast as possible! Yes, I thought all of those things as well. I thought, “For Pete’s sake, haven’t you ever heard of The Mythical Man Month? Don’t you know that adding developers to a project that’s three weeks from release and may not make it isn’t going to help? It will take me longer to train a new developer than it will if you just leave me alone and let me finish the damn thing! And besides, where was the help I’ve been asking for all this time?” I talked them out of hiring the developer, but I still don’t have the generalist, either.

    Interesting, but we had a meeting of upper management yesterday (all the above-named department heads and a couple more), and we as a group finally figured out that nobody has been thinking about the conversion at all the last few months except me. There are no plans currently in place to help accounting, purchasing or the warehouse, despite all the procedural and business issues that will go along with the conversion. That’s just great, less than two weeks to go and the only area that will be ready is IT.

    Now I know why they outsource IT work overseas and bring in H1B visa holders. Some (OK, many) managers have no clue how to manage their projects and resources, and look for the expedient and cheap way out of a jam. I really need to start my own company…

  2. Jim,

    Thanks for the pointed explanation. Clueless management is always likely to jump at the next “solution.” In this case, H-1B. The special nature of technical management dawned on me a long time ago, but it was a real epiphany. I get into it further in this article: http://www.asktheheadhunter.com/hatalentshortage1.htm

    Written a few years ago, it’s still true today, and — I’m afraid — will always be true.

    I winced when you closed by describing the fact that no one in the company is prepared to do the conversion. A consultant will be helpful at this point, eh? (Don’t throw anything.)

  3. I am going to respond by bringing up a few questions, which I have not seen answered in any of the discussions I have read on this topic.

    Full Discloser: I work at a major automaker. “At” but not “For”. This will come up later. For now, I just want to mention that I have worked with a number of individuals here on H1-B visas. And there is nothing like working with someone with an H1-B visa (especially if you did not know originally what his status was) to give you a more nuanced view of it.

    But that is not my reason for bringing it up.

    My reason for bringing it up is that every H1-B person I know HATES THE SYSTEM. They all feel totally exploited by the H1-B restrictions. They
    feel they were misled into signing up for it. They all would prefer a standard “Green Card”.

    So, the question is, why is the question always whether (or how much) to expand the H1-B rogram? Why does no one suggest scrapping the H1-B program and replacing it with a reformed standard program? I keep trying to think of a reason other than an H1-B visa makes one a slave to the sponsoring organization. But can’t. Must be too old to Rock and Roll.

    Fuller Discloser: I work at a Really Large Organization. But, only 25% of the I.T. staff there are actually employed by the Organization. The rest are all Agency Folks (commonly, but inaccurately, called Contract Programmers) or supplemental staff. Legally, we fall into the
    “temporary” category, but many of us have had desks at this Really Large Organization longer than many supervisors have.

    Now, there are many questions about this practice which cry out for answers, but the one which matters here is that these 3rd party agencies are the ones which sponsor all the H1-B visas. And, I wonder how true this is nationally. I have seen lists of which companies have the most H1-B visas, and all of them are supplemental staffers. How many of
    these H1-B visas are going to fill positions which otherwise would be direct hires, and how many are for temporary workers to fill temporary
    positions which are planned and budgeted to last 20 years? This sounds like a question for the Moody Blues.

    This leads into my third question. (Fullest Discloser: I have a transnational/transcultural family. My adopted daughter is Roma, more
    commonly known in the West as Gypsy). But, first a personal story. Back when I was too young to Rock and Roll, I worked a summer as a
    clerk/typist. I tried to leave the ‘phones alone, but, when everyone else was on break, I would answer them. And I would get calls from
    people asking to “speak with one of the girls.” And, being too stupid to know any better, I would honestly tell them that none of them were

    I have seen claims that the largest users of H1-B visas are Indian companies, who hire only Indians. I know of managers where I work who
    only fill positions from Indian body shops, and where all of the workers are Indian. And this practice strikes me as being as racist as the
    folks I found on the ‘phone in the last paragraph were sexist. But, the real question is, has American Management gotten it in their
    mind that only Indians can manage programming?

    I have to agree with you, Nick, that the best thing an individual can do is to recognize the current environment, figure out where he can add
    more value than anyone else, and promote his or her services. But, that doesn’t mean quietly accepting the current environment. Just ask those girls in the typing pool.

  4. This video says it all…. http://youtube.com/watch?v=3XGJq8wrw5I

  5. Here’s an unusual idea to solve he H1-B problem.

    Every time a person is employed via H1-B, a domestic person is left without a job.

    So charge the company. Charge them $30 an hour for their hire. Use that money, or a good portion of it, to either fund some sort of “government make-work”, or just plain refund back to the unemployed people when they file their taxes.

    Want to hire someone overseas? You could spend $30, plus $8/hour, for a minimum wage hire. Or, you could spent $35 for a local hire.

    Can’t get the people you need locally? Hire as many of these fee H1-B’s as you want. No limit.

    Forced out of a job because they all went overseas? No problem, you get money back from the government, who is collecting these $30/hour taxes specifically to refund to low income (or unemployed) people.

    Frankly, I think it’s a great idea.

    Ultimately, a nation’s economy is a resource of that nation, no different than clean drinking water. Should a low-income nation with good drinking water privatize their water, have a company bottle it, and sell it overseas, and give nothing to the local people? Or should they give the local people the water? How about something in-between: sell grade A water overseas, pay the local people enough to buy grade-B (but still good) water.

    It’s the same thing here. Want to “sell your job” to someone overseas to save money? Fine, but you have to pay the locals something to make up for it.

    (Sadly, I don’t think I’m doing a good job of explaining this.)

  6. College student H1B dilemma and enlightening you on your misconceptions.

    First of all hiring an H1B employee means the company must pay an estimated $13,000 to the government in fees. So for the “charge $30 an hour” proposal, a more realistic version of your solution is already in place which bars new H1B employees from entering the work world. This fee acts as a tariff doing exactly what you proposed except not on an hourly basis.
    Its effectiveness? I am a recent college graduate who studied at a University in Chicago. I went to a liberal arts institution majoring in Business and Communication. I cannot find one employer who is willing to pay that fee to hire me. This is due to the fact that I do not have any specialized skill or IT skill. But I am educated, I spent a lot of money for my undergraduate education like any other American, I worked on campus jobs and benefited the society in every way I could. It’s not that I do not get interview calls, its just that when they find out that I need to be sponsored they would rather hire someone else for cheaper. Thus it is effective in hiring specialized skilled labor. My brother in law who got a doctrate in laser optics at Cornell was hired and rightly so, he has specialized knowledge that no body else does. As for IT, its the same game. Skill = Value = (Hiring an American or H1B for foreigners) +- which ever method is cheaper.

    As for me I am going to be packing my bags and heading back to Pakistan in June as soon as my OPT expires. Now you may be thinking whats the harm in that. But I’m thinking I spent 5 years of my life here, built a home, friends, family, paid taxes, bought consumer goods, acted like an American, hoped that Obama would win the elections, took part in political debates, took part in socio-cultural activities, celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, and Black Friday if you will. But this H1B rule treats me like a foreigner, instantly creates a divide, creates a prejudice, an us vs them, a local and a foreigner. I just want you to think about these factors as well when you discuss H1B and not use the term foreigner the way you do. What if you were born in Afghanistan and came to the U.S to better yourself and those around you and were sent back because you were from Afghanistan, you can’t imagine that can you?