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H-1B reform debate pits tech firms against veteran IT workers

Some tech vendors say more foreign visas are needed to help with a shortage of qualified IT workers

By , IDG News Service
May 03, 2013 11:27 AM ET

IDG News Service - Many U.S. tech companies are pushing hard this year for an increase in the number of high-skill immigrants allowed into the country, but many veteran IT workers question their motives for wanting to increase the number of visas under the controversial H-1B program.

Microsoft, IBM and recently Facebook are among the large tech companies that have called for an annual increase in H-1B visas for high-skill workers, arguing they can't find qualified tech workers in the U.S. to fill all their open positions. Reports from those companies -- and others -- of thousands of unfilled tech jobs in the U.S. seem to support their argument.

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A group of eight U.S. senators has pushed this year for an increase from the current 65,000-person cap on H-1B visas to as much as 300,000 workers. But critics say the skilled worker visa program undercuts U.S. wages and is filled with abuse.

Many tech companies arguing for higher H-1B caps also say the U.S. should be encouraging the world's top IT talent to come to the U.S. "Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return?" Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an April blog post. "Why don't we let entrepreneurs move here even when they have what it takes to start new companies that will create even more jobs?"

It's unclear if companies calling for the U.S. Congress to bump up the skilled immigration numbers will get their wish. Many lawmakers prefer to deal with skilled immigration issues at the same time as they deal with the contentious larger debate on illegal immigration. But this month, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said immigration reform will be a priority in the coming months.

Many U.S. tech companies say an increase in the cap is needed.

Rick McNeight
Rick McNeight, president, Modus Operandi

Modus Operandi, a semantic search software vendor based in Melbourne, Fla., has had "a hell of a time trying to fill these positions," said Rick McNeight, the company's president.

The 80-person company has six open positions, three for Java programmers, with those positions open for months, McNeight said.

Data from Dice, the tech job board, CareerBuilder and staffing agency Kelly Services show thousands of open IT jobs across the U.S., with significant openings in application development, including mobile apps and HTML 5, IT infrastructure support, and for IT project managers. Java and .Net developers are in high demand, said Melisa Bockrath, vice president and group leader for the IT unit of Kelly Services.

CareerBuilder, the online job-search portal, had more than 290,000 job listings for application developers between December and February, and just over 20,000 active candidates in related fields. AT&T and IBM each had more than 3,400 app developer job postings during that three-month period; Microsoft and Computer Sciences each had more than 1,250 postings.

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