Machine Design

More green cards, more H-1B visas

Microsoft was recently in the news because it came up with a new scheme for more H-1B visas. H-1B, of course, lets U.S. companies employ foreign workers in such highly specialized occupations as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Microsoft not only wants Congress to permit more H-1B visas but also to reallocate 20,000 green cards for workers with such technical skills.

In return for boosting H-1B quotas, Microsoft would have Uncle Sam charge companies $10,000 per additional H-1B worker. It also suggests charging employers $15,000 per STEM green card over the current quota. So far, so good. Employers should be willing to pay a stiff fee if they feel their needs are urgent enough to hire outside the U.S. I’d even suggest setting the fee at levels far higher than what Microsoft has in mind as a way of making employers show they are serious.

But interestingly enough, Microsoft also wants fees collected from greencard permits to be invested in STEM education. Microsoft claims such measures are necessary because it has 3,400 open jobs for scientists and engineers while the U.S. last year minted only 1,603 new computer science Ph.Ds.

Of course, industry has for decades leveled allegations of shortages as a rationale for letting more foreign skilled workers enter the U.S. But researchers at the Bureau of Labor Statistics have studied the impact of letting in foreign Ph.Ds. and concluded that the result is a downward pressure on Ph.D. salaries. This downward pressure tends to discourage aspiring scientists from pursuing higher degrees. The result: The smartest of them go where the money is, which, today, is still in finance. There, new financial engineers can still earn six-figure bonuses in the first year on the job.

Thus, Microsoft’s idea for new H-1B fees seems self-defeating. The education it funds would create more workers in areas now being filled by foreigners. But filling jobs with foreign workers reduces pay scales and makes jobs in that area less attractive. One might be excused for seeing this whole process as a negative feedback loop for the process of minting STEM Ph.Ds. in the U.S.

So here is an off-the-wall idea for what to do with U.S. STEM graduates in an era when STEM jobs get filled by foreign workers: make it easy for U.S. technical personnel to become Canadians.

Workers with easy access to our Northern neighbor would have more options if salary levels take a hit from an influx of foreign workers. And indications are that Canada might be open to this idea. “The Government of Canada is committed to building an immigration system that actively recruits talent,” said a Canadian minister recently. “This is the next frontier in Canadian immigration: looking at opportunities to attract the best talent and going out there and getting it,” he continued.

A representative of the Canadian government even went to Ireland a few months ago to beg STEM graduates there to try living in Canada. The labor situation for STEM workers in Canada is so tight that its government officials are entertaining the idea of instituting special benefits for Canadian STEM personnel willing to work past the age of 65 — not because they lack the money to retire, but because they are so difficult to replace.

One other point in Canada’s favor: There’s no out-of-control financial sector in that country run by individuals making obscene salaries.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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