BOSTON (05/23/2000) - The information technology industry is being forced to drive the U.S. economy with its brakes on because of one irrefutable fact:
There's a shortage of skilled professional workers. The supply of high-tech workers is well below what the nation needs to sustain one of the largest economic booms in its history. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan recognizes this problem and says one possible solution is to increase the cap on H-1B visas to allow more foreigners to temporarily work in the U.S. Many high-tech employers agree with Greenspan and are lobbying for a revision of H-1B regulations. Otherwise, unless Congress acts soon, our economic boom may soon turn to bust.
Luckily, the pleas of high-tech employers have not gone unheard in Washington.
On March 9, a bill sponsored by Senators Spencer Abraham (Republican-Michigan) and Orrin Hatch (Republican-Utah) cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee by an overwhelming 16-2 vote. The tone of the debate was less controversial than in years past, and there was a general consensus that an increase in the number of H-1B visas is inevitable. The bill, known as the Hatch-Abraham H-1B bill, contains three key provisions:
- Increase the H-1B cap from 115,000 to 195,000 for the current and next two fiscal years. (On March 17, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that the cap had been reached for the current fiscal year, meaning no more H-1Bs will be granted until Oct. 1.)- Exempt employees of higher education and research institutions from the cap, as well as foreign students graduating from U.S. schools with master's or doctorate degrees. (This won't affect many individuals but it will free up some H-1Bs for others.)- Allow H-1B workers changing employers to begin working as soon as they file new H-1B petitions. (This provision is key because it allows people to start working for a new employer before receiving the actual H-1B approval. This will help companies who need IT workers to start immediately, especially in regions where processing times can be as long as five to six months.)For corporate IT departments and high-tech employers, whose production has suffered because of a labor shortage that can't be fixed domestically when the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in computer fields has been declining steadily, the Hatch-Abraham bill can't pass soon enough. Companies dependent on IT workers are becoming less competitive globally because they can't push their services or products to market as quickly as fully staffed foreign companies can. The worker scarcity paralyzes growth and increases production costs because companies can't staff their own IT departments. The bill addresses this shortage and will facilitate U.S. companies' success in today's global economy.
Given the nonconfrontational tenor of earlier discussions, the bill is likely to pass in one form or another.
President Clinton has proposed raising the cap effective with the 2001 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. No matter what form the Hatch-Abraham bill takes, it's a crucial short-term solution to a glaring problem, and companies should be able to benefit from its provisions before the next federal fiscal year. At a time when some groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, are arguing that the high-tech labor shortage is merely a myth, the Hatch-Abraham bill addresses the health of our economy in a practical and effective manner.