To paraphrase the famous question George W Bush posed on the campaign trail last year about American children, we must ask, "Is our programmers learning?"
The main instrument the US uses to determine how many workers from other countries will be allowed to accept high-tech employment offers in America is the H-1B programme. Named after a section of law that was first enacted in 1990, the level of immigration permitted under H-1B was raised by Congress in 1998 and again in October 2000.
The latest increase raised to 195,000 from 115,000 the number of non-US workers allowed to accept employment in America in each of the fiscal years 2000, 2001 and 2002. Colleges and some other institutions were exempted from the limits.
Perhaps this increase, combined with the current slowdown in US economic growth, will result in a glut of programmers and thus end the debate. But my bet is that the whole discussion will soon begin again, with pressure to raise the limits higher. It would be an oversimplification to say that high-tech employers want higher H-1B limits, whereas employee organisations want lower limits. But the issue does take on that tone.
One of the main advocates of higher limits is the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). The ITAA, an organisation of high-tech employers, successfully lobbied Congress to raise the H-1B levels.
On the other side of the fence, groups such as the AFL-CIO and IEEE argue that, although American programmers are available, high-tech employers prefer to hire H-1B workers from other countries for much less. Dr Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, presented testimony to Congress that "79% of the H-1B [visa holders] earn less than $US50,000, which is below the median of $US60,000 for the field." Matloff cited a study by UCLA showing a nationwide pay gap of up to 33% for H-1B workers below that of comparable American employees.
He also notes that Microsoft and most other software employers hire only 2% of applicants. That's inconsistent, he says, with an industry "in which there is supposed to be a 'desperate' labour shortage". (For his complete study, click here).
So which is it? Do American software companies want higher H-1B limits so they can hire more programmers? Or do they want higher H-1B limits so they can hire the same number of programmers at lower salaries? Two recent studies provide some answers.
The first, by the National Research Council, was commissioned by Congress, which then voted on H-1B just before the study was completed last October. A summary states, "The current size of the H-1B workforce relative to the overall number of IT professionals is large enough to keep wages from rising as fast as might be expected in a tight labour market." This suggests that the H-1B programme is, in fact, reducing the salaries of programmers.
The second study, by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, was published in January by Cornell University Press. The study, The State of Working America 2000/2001, found that wage premiums for IT professionals hadn't changed relative to similar industries since 1984. The institute concludes that IT workers are no more in short supply than other professionals in general. We'll have to wait and see whether the Bush administration pushes for more H-1B immigration. But the evidence is that an increase would, indeed, affect your salary.
Livingston’s latest book is Windows Me Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to Brian Livingston. He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.