politics as usual populism

Many of us in the technology field have been watching unamused as our elected officials have been duking it out over immigration.  They’ve concentrated on whether or not the president’s guest worker program should be included as part of the bill.  Yesterday prospects dimmed again.

The GOP folks seem concerned about providing a legal means for people to enter the country, apparently forgetting that we want the US to be the place where people want to come to work. 

The Democrats are focused on providing this means, but are ignoring all other facets of immigration – such as the H-1B visa program.  Also – they tend to worry about "losing American jobs" to foreign workers.

Why do I care?  Well – last December I traveled to Cairo Egypt for my employer to recruit some bright engineers to come and work for us in the Seattle area.  At a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, six of us went there, and invited candidates from Egypt and South Africa to come and interview.  We ended up extending full time offers to (I think) about 11 of them, and began the arduous process of applying for visas.  Back in April we received word that there would be a lottery for these visas, and that given the number of applications, there was a less than 50% chance for each candidate to get in.

The consequences of not getting in mean that a candidate must wait a full year for a new H-1B 1quota to open up.  Best case scenario is that an application is approved and the candidate starts work ten months after an offer is tendered.  Otherwise, it’ll be a minimum of 22 months.  You read that right.  These talented engineers who want to come to work here with us, pay taxes, and contribute to the economies of Washington State and the US aren’t allowed to do so because of our ‘protectivist’ laws.

And there’s a growing gap in the number of engineering school graduates vs. the number of available jobs (from http://www.wsechicago.org/02_novdec_socnews.asp):

Declining numbers of engineering school graduates, which dropped 25 percent from 1985 to 2000, will collide with boomers’ retirement plans and with growth in engineering opportunities. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts 138,000 additional engineering jobs in the next decade.

Yet, according to Engineering & Technology Enrollments, published by the Engineering Workforce Commission, the number of foreign nationals enrolling in engineering bachelor’s degree programs is increasing significantly. In the fall of 2001 the enrollment level of foreign national students rose 18.6 percent at the freshman level and 14.7 at the graduate level.

Get all that?  Fewer Americans are studying the engineering disciplines, more foreign nationals are coming here to do so, and more US engineering jobs are available.  For some reason we’re willing to educate foreign nationals (often subsidizing their education), but let’s not let them stay and pay taxes!

And there are unintended consequences.  Over the past five years, companies have significantly increased the amount of offshore R&D they do, as a means of tapping into those otherwise closed labor markets.  Microsoft has grown their development centers in India and China, while opening up many more.  They’re devoting significant dollars to training up engineers and management, with an eye to pursuing culturally-specific projects as well as moving more jobs where there are people to do those jobs.  Can you blame them?

All of this is a long-winded way to saying I think things are horribly messed up.

By the way, I received word yesterday that at least one of the H-1B applications filed for our candidates was denied.  Very very frustrating.


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