ITAA says US to fall short of H-1B visa quota

A soured US economic climate has created a drastic change in the country's recruitment of foreign technology talent.

          A soured US economic climate has created a drastic change in the country's recruitment of foreign technology talent. As a result, this could mark the first year in recent times that the US does not butt heads against its cap on H-1B foreign worker visas, a situation with both negative and positive effects, according to industry experts.

          Over the past three years, the ceiling on H-1B visas has more than doubled as companies and industry groups pushed the government to use foreign workers as a way to solve the technology labour crisis in the US.

          After heated pressure, Congress raised the number of H-1B visas available to workers from its standard limit of 65,000 to 115,000 in the last two years and then to 195,000 this year. While both of the lower totals were met with ease, some industry observers think the US will fall short of its quota in 2001, a sentiment that has sparked debate in the technology sector.

          "I doubt we will hit the 195,000 mark this year," says Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

          The ITAA was one of the leading advocates of raising the H-1B visa limits and thinks the slowdown only proves its case against staunch objectors to its lobbying efforts.

          In the past three years, the US reached its visa cap early in the year. Thus far in 2001, however, the government doled out only 72,000 H-1B visas. This number coupled with a slower economy leads Harris to believe the US will fall short of its total for the year.

          Harris contends that the reduction in H-1B visas proves the ITAA's argument that the increase in work permits was designed to solve a major shortage in skilled technology talent, and not a way to recruit cheap workers from abroad.

          "It was never a floor. It was always a ceiling," he says. "If we don't use all of the visas, it just confirms our case. We were not looking for cheap labour but instead labour that could be brought in when all other US recruitment tactics fail."

          Some present at the ITAA's annual conference held here, however, voiced strong concern over the current state of H-1B visa workers in the US. As the economy wanes and the chance of unemployment looms, some foreign workers are disappointed that they may have to leave the country in the 10 day post-contract period set by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

          One man from India at the conference urged government representatives to take swift action to increase the time workers can stay in the US.

          While Harris expressed sympathy for these workers, he also cautioned that such moves by the government would undermine the purpose of H-1B visas and the ITAA's long held belief in what role the visas were meant to serve.

          "When your H-1B visa assignment is over Congress does not want you hanging around," Harris says. "There is a conflict with the sense of entitlement that a lot of H-1B visa workers think they have."

          Harris sees the visas as any another type of contract. Workers come here for a set amount of time to do specific projects. Pushing for them to stay now could undermine the agreement the ITAA and others made with Congress when trying to up the visa total in the first place.

          While the US may lose out by watching some of its recruited talent return home, Harris is bullish on what the country has done to train its own workers. Four-year universities, community colleges and vendor-run academies have all gone a long to way help solve the labor shortage, especially when a struggling economy calls for fewer workers.

          Additionally, the return of H-1B workers to their native lands could help the US in the long run, Harris argues. Workers returning to India, for example, could use experience gained in the US to form companies that boost technology in their home country and also use contacts made in the US to form powerful, global partnerships.

          A stronger technology economy in India can increase the consumption of US products, leading to more jobs for workers here. Harris visited India recently and recalled warehouses packed full with computers made by Austin, Texas-based Dell Computer.

          "Losing the talent is a mixed blessing that may work out for US companies," he says. "They can increasingly become our customers, which means there will be someone in Austin who can get a job out of the deal."

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