this month's lead news story, "That Giant Sucking Sound" (pg 37), Contributing
Writer Robert Spiegel examines the proliferation of outsourcing and the related
loss of engineering jobs to countries overseas. Many people, however, worry more
about the loss of technical jobs that stay right here, but are filled by foreign
workers under the H-1B visa program.
"It is an outrage that congress has created these visa programs to help their corporations, " says Michael Emmons, an engineer who says that he was required to train the foreign workers who ultimately replaced him after he was laid off.
Though the cap for temporary visas was put at 65,000 in 1990, lobbyists for high-tech companies persuaded Congress to increase the number to 195,000 in 2000. Many believe that the cap is too high-particularly in a down economy that is decimating the engineering profession. According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), some 120,000 electrical engineers and computer scientists are currently looking for work. So it's asking Congress to lower the visa quota back to 65,000 before the temporary law expires in September, when the cap will drop back automatically.
I'm betting every time the economy is in dire straights, the discussion focuses on reducing the cap on H-1B visas. But what about the cap on salaries it imposes, in good times or bad? Under H-1B rules, employers must hire workers at a salary that is commensurate with market rates. Though I suppose some companies might cheat, let's say most don't. Even so, you don't have to take an intro course in economics course to understand the relationship between supply, demand, and pricing.
What kind of message does a regulatory mandate that discourages engineering salaries from growing send to college students? Well, between 1985 and 2000—years when the H-1B program was in full swing--the number of engineering degrees awarded here fell by 25%. Now you can't blame it all on H-1Bs, but let's face it: Engineering is a challenging curriculum and the financial rewards aren't all that great.
Of course, we could just solve the problem by letting India and China educate all the engineers the world will ever need. But what we really need are some imaginative policymakers who think more strategically about the engineering profession and its role in the increasingly technologically sophisticated society that we live in.