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Employers Shouldn't Rely on Immigration Reform to Address High-Tech Skills Gap

While I think it's important to increase the amount of H-1B visas to stay economically competitive with the rest of the world, I also believe this skills gap was in some way created by U.S. employers.

June 28, 2013

Max Mihelich is guest-posting for Ed Frauenheim today.

It wouldn't be surprising if the House of Representatives turns away the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate on June 27.

Members of the House have criticized the measure created by the Senate's so-called Gang of Eight as too lax on border security and providing too easy a path to citizenship to people already living in the United States without permission.

Although it's unlikely to pass through the House, the bill carries the potential to change the employment landscape with provisions that would increase the amount of H-1B visas available each year, create a new 'W' visa for low-skilled workers, and expand the use of E-Verify to all U.S. employers.

When I was at SHRM13 a couple of weeks ago, I sat in on an immigration reform press briefing. One of the speakers was Lynn Shotwell, the executive director of the American Council for International Personnel. Shotwell said the bill's provision to increase the amount of H-1B visas is intended to address the growing skills gap between American workers and high-tech jobs.

She also said, if this bill doesn't pass, the ability of the U.S. to remain competitive in the global economy will be damaged because employers may start to look outside the U.S. to expand their businesses.

I find it hard to agree with Shotwell on that point. While employers certainly are having a difficult time finding the high-skilled workers they need, I doubt they'll decide to give up on the U.S. if the amount of H-1B visas aren't increased. A couple reasons why: 1) moving is expensive; 2) reshoring is already bringing back thousands of high-tech manufacturing jobs to the U.S. simply because the prices for labor, production and shipping are increasing in China and India.

While I do think it's important to increase the amount of H-1B visas to stay economically competitive with the rest of the world, I also believe this skills gap was in some way created by U.S. employers, which is why I think they could be putting more effort into addressing the issue instead of waiting on the strongly divided members of Congress to provide a minor, temporary fix for them.

There are a few ways I think employers could address this issue.

First, employers could offer training programs that teach current employees the more advanced skills they're seeking. They could create apprenticeship programs too.

Another thing that's been suggested to me by a couple sources—and this is something some smart companies are doing—is that employers could partner with local universities to develop programs that get students to pursue a major in science, technology, engineering or math, and also provide those students easy access to internships to give them real job experiences.

Personally, if my employer took the time to invest in me and develop my skills to advance my career, I'd certainly repay them with loyalty and hard work. I think most people would too.

And it wouldn't be a problem when some of those new highly skilled workers leave for other companies, so long as most companies took the time to train their employees. Because the end goal would be achieved—there would be an abundance of highly skilled workers to hire, which would in turn allow the U.S. to remain competitive in the global economy.

Max Mihelich is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email mmihelich@workforce.com. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.