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By Jack Ganssle

The Unending H-1B Saga

Published 8/06/2007

Like tossing a lit cigarette out the window onto a bit of dry California brush, some subjects are consistently inflammatory for engineers. If career issues always spark excited commentary, discussion about H-1B visas are like pouring gasoline on a wildfire.

The ACM and IEEE claim that enrollments in CS and EE curricula are falling precipitously. Yet readers respond that those organizations are fronts for industry; that cries of looming shortages are the tools of fat-cat employers to flood the market with cheap imported labor and drive salaries down. Is that paranoia, or does it show a firm grasp of market dynamics?

Others respond that any idiot can see there's no shortage. "Just look at all of the unemployed engineers I know!" Unemployed friends and relatives make for powerful personal imagery, but just as a single cold or hot day says nothing meaningful about the global warming shoutfest, local and personal anecdotes are tragic but not statistically-significant. The IEEE says there's practically full employment, but those who think they're a shill for industry won't believe them.

What about salaries? Simple supply and demand mandates that a shortage will be accompanied by rising salaries, which recent surveys suggest merely mirror cost of living increases, if that. The paranoid - or, maybe those with that firm grasp of market dynamics - will note that recent increases in H-1B visas could be controlling salary increases. As will exporting work to low-wage countries, a trend that certainly continues to grow.

Data is abundant but is shaded with agendas. I tend to believe some of the IEEE/ACM data about college enrollments since it correlates with much I hear from those in academia. It appears - to me, at least - that there will be a negative bubble of engineers and computer scientists in the near future as we start to graduate plenty of hamburger-flippers but fewer EE and CS people.

But is there a shortage today? I think the evidence for that is sparse. However, there's little doubt that many companies are lobbying Congress to expand the H-1B visa program, either to fulfill what they perceive is a very real need, or to drive down engineering costs.

One of the best summaries of myths and facts surrounding the H-1B program appeared recently in Information Week (http://www.informationweek.com/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=201200100). For instance, did you know that about a third of Microsoft's US workers are here under some sort of visa assistance? Or that slime-sucking legal firms offer programs teaching employers how to manipulate the law to avoid hiring those pesky taxpaying US citizens (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCbFEgFajGU )?

This marvelous country has traditionally embraced new citizens from all corners of the world, enriching our culture beyond measure. Most of us come from immigrant families, whether recently or generations ago. But we cannot allow immigration policy to be dictated by corporate greed rather than an ethical standard that balances the many tradeoffs.

I'd sure like to see an H-1B debate that's grounded, first, in what's best for the national interest, and that secondly addresses near-term practical issues. Actually, that would be a nice way to frame any of the myriad issues facing Congress. Instead, we can be sure that they will continue to do anything that courts big donors and panders to the (often manufactured) fears of the electorate.

What do you think? Is there a genuine shortage of engineers in the US or are companies manipulating Congress to get cheaper labor?