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H-1B visa reform is critical to solving the US talent shortage, analysis finds

Updating H-1B visa guidelines, which haven't been changed in 14 years, is the best way to close the skills gap, according to TechNet.

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Boosting immigration of high-skilled workers is the best approach to dealing with a severe talent shortage that's affecting American employers, according to a new report.

One in four American employers is struggling to fill empty positions due to a lack of available talent, according to TechNet, a bipartisan network of tech CEOs and executives that seeks to promote growth in the technology sector. Nearly two thirds (64%) of employers say workforce skills don't align with their firms' needs. If the US doesn't narrow that gap, productivity could be halved, according to the report, which also warns of a slowdown in growth.

The solution: update H-1B visa guidelines, which haven't been changed in 14 years. The tech sector has long relied on H-1B visas to hire high-skilled workers for roles it can't fill with Americans because of a shortage of STEM workers. Those in support of the program say it's been critical in bringing creativity and innovation to Silicon Valley

TechNet says more highly skilled immigrants will help the economy beyond Silicon Valley. The report includes individual assessments for all 50 states, detailing the potential positive impact immigration reform could have on each one's economy. 

"A lot of folks who live outside of the traditional tech hubs think that this doesn't really affect them or matter to them," said Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet. She said immigration is as important in Alabama, Iowa and South Dakota as it is in California, Texas and Massachusetts.

Opponents of increased immigration argue that those measures would take jobs away from Americans. Critics have also said companies take advantage of the H-1B program to hire immigrants at lower-than-market rates

TechNet says immigration will buttress a US workforce that doesn't have the technical skills needed to fill available high-tech positions. Additionally, many high-skilled workers who immigrate to the US end up starting their own businesses, which creates more jobs.

Around 250,000 computer science jobs are available in the US at any given time, the report says, with nearly five open jobs for every software developer looking for work. The US Department of Labor forecasts 1.4 million jobs will be open in computer specialist fields in the near future. 

"Based on current projections, American universities only produce enough skilled degree-holders to fill 29 percent of these positions," the TechNet report says. Providing more H-1B visas could mitigate this problem. As it currently stands, around three-quarters of the 85,000 H-1B visas allotted each year go to computer science workers, according to The Associated Press.

"The culture of a company is really improved by having immigrants working alongside native-born Americans, in terms of collaboration and innovation, but also the productivity of the company," Moore said. "The contributions of immigrants to our economy is undeniable."

Critics argue that the US should focus on amplifying its own STEM educational programs. The TechNet report says relying on education alone won't solve the problem quickly. It notes that the US graduates roughly 65,000 students a year with tech-related degrees. Most don't have enough training to be employable.

Finding an effective national STEM strategy could take too long when skilled workers are needed now. Education reform "is critical for contracting the skills gap years in the future," TechNet says, "but does little to improve the current labor and output shortage."

"It's not just a tech issue," said Peter Chandler, TechNet's vice president of federal policy and government relations. "It's an American economic imperative."