Legislation is pending in Congress that would expand the H-1B program, now capped at 65,000 visas annually, to allow up to 30,000 more foreign-born engineers and professionals to enter the United States each year. EE Times recently interviewed four EEs--two hailing from the States and two working here under H-1B--by phone and e-mail to get their thoughts about the program and its impact on the engineering workforce. Weighing in were Mike Korkowski, BSEE, a controls engineer with Edmik Inc. (Antioch, Ill.); Praveen Minumula, an embedded-systems engineer with a design services and embedded-solutions provider in Illinois; Robert Rivers, founder of Aircom Inc. (Orange, Mass.); and Alan Waltho, senior staff engineer with Intel Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.).
The need for H1-B
There may be finite, limited areas where the [domestic] talent pool is just not there. But there are skilled people here who have basically been drop kicked. I've talked to people across the country; they are taking jobs well below their training. I've seen people drop out of the profession. There are companies here in Lake County (Illinois) that are working with China. Their people . . . are being replaced, typically by H-1B [workers] but sometimes by [the employers'] getting somebody to handle everything in the Far East. I don't hold the H-1B workers at fault. I blame the employers.
Robert Rivers: Employers have found a source of cheap, willing workers who are indentured. They don't need any of them. But they won't use displaced [U.S.] workers . . . Look at the variability of supply. Check with headhunters: When the H-1B quotas run out, the demand for native U.S. workers increases markedly.
Alan Waltho: I think we do need the expertise we get from H-1Bs. We started off allowing a lot of immigrant workers in, and now you're very reliant on those workers. It would be difficult to turn that around.
I don't think the [U.S.] educational system brings forward enough skilled workers to sustain development in the areas that the U.S. depends upon. Quite a few H-1Bs get their engineering training in the United States. It's the number of Americans going into it that is low.
Praveen Minumula: There are, on average, 65,000 H-1B visas per year, and the number of years an employee can be here on an H-1B visa is six. So at any time, there are about 400,000 employees on H-1B. Are there 400,000 employees readily available in this country to take up these jobs? If so, then there is no need for H-1B employees in this country.
Increasing the H-1B quota
Korkowski: The thing that scares me is that the Bush administration wants to increase the [H-1B] numbers. I'm willing to leave the numbers where they are, but doubling or tripling them? I just don't see it.
I fear the next big wave in these increases in H-1B visas. I'm really worried that it's just too much. Eventually they'll vaporize everyone.
Rivers: All [increasing the quota] does is drive down the demand for U.S. kids to prepare for engineering and science careers.
Waltho: If you look at most high-tech companies, we advertise nationally and post positions on our own Web sites, and we cannot find enough people with the skills we need. Looking at the people around me, there are people in my department from India, from Korea, from China. I assume they have H-1Bs. The [H-1B application] process involves a lot of labor, and it's a fairly costly process [for employers] to go through. It's time-consuming. That's a fairly good indication that we can't find the appropriate skills in America. If it was easy to find an American to take the job, I'm not certain a lot of companies would go through it.
Impact on salaries
Rivers: The starting wages of engineering graduates have been running in the range of $50,000 to $55,000 a year; the starting wages of lawyers run over $100,000. That's an indication of how valued engineering graduates are. If there wasn't a ready supply of H-1Bs, you would find the engineering salaries increasing.
Korkowski: If an employer can get someone to work for less, it's guaranteed which one they'll hire. If they can get someone who wants to get their feet wet, that person will be just like I was when I was 25, willing to work for a lot less. Now I'm worried because the H-1B guy is not going to be asking for too many raises, so no one is able to get a raise. From a business standpoint, it's a good deal.
Minumula: Most H-1B workers are paid according to the prevailing wages in that location for that job and for the experience an individual has. Most of this data is available online, and an employee knows what salary he can earn. So I do not see why an H-1B employee would work for an employer who pays him less.
Waltho: Compared with what I would get back in Canada, I'm getting more in the States. I get along well with American [colleagues]. As far as I know, we're in the same pay league. In general it's the engineering profession that keeps salaries down, not H-1Bs. We'd all like more money; but we don't have trade unions, we don't lobby hard. Engineers as a whole don't promote themselves the way some classes of workers do.
Fallout for domestic employees
Korkowski: There's absolutely no question [that U.S. workers are losing jobs to H-1B]. I've heard about [companies that are replacing U.S. engineers with ones] they're rolling in from India. Some of these ads--I've actually called them up to see what's going on. I couldn't believe the things they wanted people to do, and the pay they were offering was so low. Nobody in this country can afford or wants to take those jobs.
Rivers: U.S. workers have been immersed in the system for a long time, and the foreign [H-1B] workers are mostly young workers . . . so they haven't been exposed to the age discrimination problem. Age discrimination occurs in the United States starting at age 40, to the extent allowed by the supply of H-1Bs.
Minumula: An H-1B position is created when you cannot find a suitable person [domestically] to do that job. Jobs have been taken away from U.S. workers in many forms for many years. Manufacturing has been outsourced for years. Many semiconductor companies have research and production facilities in Europe or Asia. Those jobs have been gone for years. The only difference is that they are invisible, whereas when you start seeing someone new sitting next to you at your workplace, you sense that he has replaced an American employee.
U.S. educational system
Rivers: The U.S. educational system doesn't seem to care where they get their students, as long as they get them. . . . Industry pushes the education button in saying that when people get displaced, all they need to do is to attain some higher level of education in order to find gainful employment. In the meantime, [employers] are either filling higher-level jobs with imported people or are exporting those jobs to lower-cost areas.
Korkowski: People's desire to become engineers has been changed by certain business-type people. . . . Our talent pool is being eroded. You're seeing engineers who are like project coordinators: They're making calls to guys like me and asking questions. Employers are hiring these people, and they don't even know what kind of engineers they need. Then they're outsourcing for the skills they don't have.
Waltho: The high-tech industry in the United States demands a lot of engineers, but I don't think there are enough people entering the U.S. education system who come out able to do this kind of work. Americans tend to be marketeers and business managers and promoters of ideas. They're not necessarily doing the very detailed engineering work that goes on, the real nitty-gritty.
Minumula: If you see a typical graduate-level engineering class in many [U.S.] universities, more than half of the class members are international students. Why? Most of the H-1B employees attended U.S. schools. International students [and their families] contributed $13.29 billion to the U.S. economy in 2004/2005 through their tuition and fees and living expenses [according to the Institute of International Education]. How many jobs are created with this kind of money? Does anyone complain about it?