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Tech Industry

Employers should pay the price to import tech workers

The high-tech industry wants to import more foreign workers, but labor is opposed for fear of driving down wages. Here's a solution to this polarized debate: Let high-tech firms pay for the privilege and import all the workers they can.

The high-tech industry is in Washington, D.C., today asking legislators to import an unlimited number of foreign tech workers, while labor remains set against it.

Here's a solution to this polarized debate: If high-tech firms want to be excused from competing in the U.S. labor market, let them pay for the privilege and import all the workers they can.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, Cypress Semiconductor, and Sun Microsystems executives are expected to ask the government to lift the cap on temporary worker visas for foreign skilled workers. The annual allotment of 65,000 ran out for the first time in September last year and is expected to be exhausted by May or June this year, with no new visas available until October 1.

High-tech companies claim the cap must be lifted to provide emergency relief from a U.S. shortage of skilled workers, such as engineers and software programmers. Ten percent of all information technology (IT) positions cannot be filled for lack of suitable candidates, according to a study from the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group lobbying to lift the temporary worker visa cap.

Plenty of critics think the shortage is exaggerated, if not outright fabricated. They purport it's a ploy to bring cheap, virtually indentured immigrant employees into technology firms, which could depress the wages of domestic workers.

Industry representatives counter that they simply can't hire workers with the right skills at any price.

There's one way to find out who's right: Charge for H-1B visas. If companies are really desperate, paying $5,000 to apply for an H-1B visa and $20,000 a year to keep it should be well worth it. It would give them the workers they so urgently need, and with those millions of dollars in projects finally off the back burner, their new workers should pay for themselves in a heartbeat.

In addition, the money could be used to train America's woefully inadequate workforce the ITAA keeps moaning about. Today, about 40 percent of the alloted 65,000 H-1B visas go to technical occupations. If that percentage holds, then today's high-tech immigrants would garner $520 million alone.

Some of the money could also be used to reform and enforce current rules. The H-1B visa program was never meant to be a source for cheap foreign workers, but that's exactly what it has become, according to a 1996 Labor Department investigation that uncovered rampant abuse.

Temporary workers are supposed to receive the same wages as their domestic counterparts, but they are routinely paid an average of one-third less by one estimate. It's hardly surprising. Today, companies themselves decide what constitutes a fair wage, and the Labor Department doesn't have any mechanisms for following up to see that workers are properly compensated. The visa fees could help fund a third party that would determine and enforce a reasonable wage. That way, immigrants would be less likely to force down domestic wages.

The Labor Department also found that these visas, reserved for the exceptional circumstances when no U.S. worker will fill the bill, are granted with little more than a faxed request. A $5,000 application fee would cut down on frivolous requests and give the agency the resources to investigate their legitimacy.

If H-1B rules were reformed and then strictly enforced, it just might give Texas Instruments and Microsoft the incentive to look a little harder at home before casting their eyes abroad. Then we would see how real the high-tech shortage is.

But don't expect the ITAA or other industry leaders to go for any compromise. The White House hinted earlier in the week that it was willing to raise the visa cap if high-tech employers promised not to lay off existing workers. Word barely got out before Cypress Semiconductor boss T.J. Rodgers was saying nothing doing! He didn't want the government's nose to get into the high-tech industry's hiring tent. This comes despite the fact that Digital Equipment applied for 1,100 temporary worker visas between 1990 and 1997 while cutting more than 20,000 jobs.

If high-tech companies want to be excused from the domestic labor market, let them pay for the privilege. That way, when they do import skilled workers, we'll know that they had no better alternatives. Congress can stop rewarding companies for undercutting U.S. workers and give the industry all the highly-skilled foreign nationals it needs and deserves under the law. Reform the program first, then lift the cap.

Margie Wylie writes about the vicissitudes of the Information Age Wednesdays in Perspectives.