Approved by a vote of 96-1 in the Senate, the measure raised the cap on H-1Bvisas, increasing to 195,000 from 115,000 the number of skilled foreign workersallowed to enter the U.S. on a temporary visa over each of the next three years.
The measure provides H-1B workers more options to extend their status andwork longer in the U.S. There's also a welcome new stipulation that requiresImmigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to reduce processing times for thevisas.
Tapping overseas talent
Paul Wilson, HR director at FutureNet, an e-business consulting firm withFortune 1000 clients, says he must fill between 200 and 225 IT positions a year.Prior to the new legislation, Wilson found it difficult to tap foreign ITtalent. The allocation for visas was so low that most were already given out bymidsummer of each calendar year.
"If [candidates] weren't in the queue by July or August, [they]basically had to wait until the next year," Wilson says. About sevenpercent of his hires are H-1B visa holders, and he now expects that number torise significantly.
"We have a new market economy emerging that's driven by IT, and it willgrow only as large as the employee base allows," says Mary Musacchia,director of government relations for SAS Institute, a large privately heldsoftware developer located in North Carolina's Research Triangle. "Ourindustry needs these skilled workers."
In the past, employers were sometimes reluctant to interview foreigncandidates in line for visas because of the time-consuming bureaucracy involved.
"You had to get clearance from INS before you could hire them, whichcould be a three month process," says Bruce Fram, CEO of Luminate, amanagement service provider located in Silicon Valley. "You never knew ifthey could start in a month or three months. With American citizens, you knewthey could start in two weeks."
As a result, while Fram says he hired many workers from overseas for contractpositions, he found it hard from a business standpoint to fill full-timepositions with H-1B workers.
The new measure changes that. "We do have some permanent H-1B folks now,and we expect to have more, thanks to the new legislation," he says..
The foreign worker's perspective
The new measure should be an improvement over the former H-1B visa lifestyle,which "greatly limited me both professionally and personally," saysPrasad Aloni, a Philadelphia-based IT professional who emigrated from Indiaeight years ago.
Bureaucratic rules and regulations made it tough for H-1B workers to changejobs, even if they felt unhappy or exploited. They are often at the mercy of IT"body shops" - staffing companies that imported foreign workers - andcouldn't negotiate for salaries and working conditions equal to those of theirAmerican counterparts.
Because they didn't know how long they'd be allowed to stay in the U.S., theyoften hold off buying homes or cars and putting down roots. Fram has feltcompassion for his H-1B employees.
"I know them, their kids, their families," he says. "Itcreates a lot of consternation for them - can they stay? Can they buy ahouse?"
Still, foreign IT workers prize H1-B visas, and the raised cap gives themmore hope. Pranav Patel, a senior development globalization specialist with SASInstitute's national language division, says he has several family members inIndia who are waiting to come to the U.S. All have advanced degrees in technicalfields as well as training and experience in the software industry, thanks tothe plethora of IT training centers in his native country.
"India has a large pool of untapped, educated people who can help us [inthe U.S.] maintain the economic growth which we enjoy," Patel says.
Aloni agrees. The new legislation "could potentially help some reallysmart people back home in India who want to come to this country to achieve agreater financial and professional standard.
Impact on U.S. workers
Yet what does this new influx of IT talent from overseas mean for American ITprofessionals? Will they lose some employment advantage?
Hiring companies claim jobs taken by H-1B workers are primarily ones thathigh-tech companies could not otherwise fill with qualified American workers. Inother words, visa holders will supplement the current workforce, not replace it.
That's because there's not just a chronic shortage of IT workers, but of whatFram calls "A players" - those with the talent to play a major role ingetting a high tech product out the door, on schedule.
He feels the new legislation won't take anything away from American workersbecause there is constant demand for the best talent, regardless of country oforigin. And contrary to recent media reports about the industry as a whole, Framsays he doesn't believe age-ism exists in IT - at least, not at his company. .
"We have a lot of gray beards running around here, and they're allrunning LANs (local area networks) in their houses," he says. "That'snot age-related, that's personality related. They're [obviously] keeping theirskills up. We have to get to market, and if they're an 'A' player, we wantthem."
The new measure should help the U.S. raise more homegrown IT talent, since itallocates funds for math, science and technology education in U.S. elementaryand high schools. And the $500 fee for each visa will generate funds forscholarships for 60,000 US students and training programs for 150,000 USworkers.
The U.S is only protecting its own economic interests by raising the visacap, says Patel. "If the increase was not made, then the work would be sentto countries like India, and the U.S. would not benefit."
At SAS, Patel works with a group of H-1B workers from India, helping themtransition to the U.S. He says they are always surprised by how warmly they arewelcomed by their American neighbors.
"They are used to all kinds of red tape to do even simple things inIndia. Here they have lots of freedom."
He thinks it's also good for the U.S. economy as a whole. "The moneythat the H-1 B visa people earn stays here. They pay taxes, buy new cars, renthomes, and take vacations."