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Senate to tackle labor shortage

A Michigan Senator will propose to expand the limit on the number of foreigners allowed to petition each year for a work visa.

The legislative wheels of the Senate will be in motion this week as Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Michigan) proposes to expand the limit on the number of foreigners allowed to petition each year for a work visa.

The high-tech industry has been bemoaning a labor shortage of sufficiently skilled individuals for some time now, and businesses rely on foreign professionals to fill some of those gaps. Abraham's proposed legislation likely will have a sweeping impact on the U.S. technology sector, which he says has come to depend on highly trained foreigners to offset the lack of similarly qualified domestic professionals.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) today announced that it has stopped accepting visa petitions for highly skilled foreigners, because the 65,000 annual cap on the H-1B visa already has been maxed out--4-1/2 months before the end of the fiscal year.

Last year was the first time the cap ever had been reached, and it was not hit until September 1, during fiscal 1997, just one month before the new fiscal year was to begin.

The INS said that any short-term increase in the number of visas allowed should coincide with industry efforts to bolster the skill level of U.S. workers, as well as with reforms to the visa program in general. The government agency said reforms should require businesses to make genuine efforts to recruit and retain U.S. workers before hiring foreign workers.

Other government officials are turning their attention to what they believe is the root cause of the shortage: not enough emphasis on technical learning in American schools. Commerce Department Secretary William Daley today held a town hall meeting in Rockville, Maryland, in which he proposed a three-point plan to boost the number of the nation's high-tech workers through online mentoring programs for K-12 students.

Proponents of increasing the number of foreign workers eligible say that it is not a substitute for education in the United States, but rather a necessity aimed at keeping businesses afloat by making an adequate pool of workers available to them.

"Raising the cap is not going to mitigate the need to [focus on science and math education] and we are not arguing for the cap to be eliminated," said Bill Bold, a member of the industry trade group American Electronics Association (AEA) and the director of government affairs at Qualcomm. He added that upping the number of foreigners accepted would help mitigate increasing international competition from countries that are not bound by immigration caps.

The bill being presented by Abraham will aim to increase the number of the H-1B visas accepted to 90,000 from the current limit of 65,000.

William T. Archey, president and chief executive of the AEA, said that the trade group's position on the issue is not motivated by the shortage of skilled workers, but rather on the assumption that companies must have access to "the best talent in the world" in order to succeed.

He argued that bringing skilled workers from around the world to the United States is benefiting the country as a whole, because when individuals develop ideas in the United States, they also create a large number of jobs, which in turn creates a lot of wealth.

The cap on the number of workers should be based on market needs, he said, rather than on the highly politicized issue of immigration.

Some members of Congress have wondered if the real deficiency in the high-tech workforce is in the number of women entering and advancing in the field. The House Subcommittee on Technology recently passed legislation that would launch a one-year federal study to determine where women are underrepresented in the computer and science industries.

If the bill to increase the number of H1-B visas is passed in the Senate, it then will go to the House of Representatives for a vote. Archey predicted that the matter should be decided before Congress breaks for the Memorial Day weekend.

The H-1B is a temporary visa category for nonimmigrant workers that includes specialty occupations requiring a bachelor's degree or higher. Typical H-1B occupations include engineers, computer programmers, architects, doctors, and college professors. The visa lasts up to three years and then may be extended for an additional three years.

The 65,000 cap affects only first-time applicants. The INS will continue to process petitions filed for current H-1B workers.

Bold said that the H-1B program is a small but important part of the hiring program at Qualcomm, and pointed out that five Qualcomm employees already are affected by the cap.

The cap makes college recruiting particularly difficult for Qualcomm--and others--because some of the company's newest workers are fresh out of school and have been in the country on extensions of student visas. When it comes time for these students to roll over their student visas into worker visas, they won't be accepted, and, as a result, will be put on leave, according to Bold.

"This is a real problem," he said. "We look to our university campuses [to hire new workers], and now they are being told they can't contribute to the economy" of the country in which they received their degrees.

Qualcomm usually hires about 5 percent of its overall workforce through the H-1B visa program. Last year, it hired 174 engineers directly from college campuses, 115 of which were foreign nationals. All but five were lucky enough to get their application approved in time.

Bold predicted that next year the labor shortage will be compounded further, as the visa cap is likely to be exhausted by February or March.