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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Tech firms cite shallow U.S. talent pool

By Michelle Kessler
USA Today

U.S. tech companies aren't just sending work overseas. They're also trying to hire more foreign workers in the United States.

Congress approved 20,000 new visas for skilled foreign workers in November. To qualify for these H-1B visas, a worker must have a graduate degree from a U.S. university and a job offer from a U.S. company, which must verify that it cannot find a U.S. worker to fill the job.

Tech companies say they need visas because they can't find enough talented scientists and engineers here. Originally, 65,000 H-1B visas were allocated for this fiscal year, which started in October. They were all claimed the first day. Unlike the 20,000 new visas, those first 65,000 required only a bachelor's degree or foreign equivalent.

"We don't want to turn away the best and the brightest," says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a tech trade group. Forcing foreign students to leave the country after earning degrees in U.S. schools "is cutting off our own nose to spite our face," he says.

But critics say tech firms like foreign workers mainly because they're a plentiful, cheap labor pool. Hiring them "helps to undermine the American middle class," says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Whatever happened to on-the-job training?"

Use of H-1B visas soared during the tech boom, when companies struggled to fill positions. The number of annual visas was raised to 195,000 in 2001.

The visas became controversial when the industry tumbled later that year, causing thousands of workers to lose jobs. The H-1B visa cap was eventually lowered, forcing many foreign workers to leave the country. The current increase was included in a giant spending bill President Bush is expected to sign.

Many tech firms say these ups and downs hide the real problem: the poor quality of U.S. math and science education. Intel CEO Craig Barrett claims the United States is falling behind rivals because grade-school math and science classes don't prepare students for college. That means many students choose other majors. China, for example, graduates about five times as many engineers as the United States.

Tech firms have also been criticized for moving work overseas. They say they do that to cut costs and to find more skilled workers.

Bob Slater, 47, a tech manager with Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, says he knows many talented engineers and programmers who are "selling houses because they can't find a (tech) job."

DeVry University professor Tom Bock, 57, says most professors at his New York school are from other countries. "We can't get technical people to teach here that are born in the United States," Bock says.