Lament of the pocket-protector set

As Congress considers letting more foreigners fill high-tech jobs, software engineers rebel.

Linda Kilcrease has never been a political activist. Even when she lost her software-engineering job at an insurance company in 1994, she didn't protest.

It was when the company asked her to train her replacement - a foreign worker brought in under a government visa program - that she became a weekend warrior. "None of us realized what H-1B was," she says of the guest-worker program. "When I realized what was happening, I became an activist."

Across the country, computer programmers and other high-tech workers are quietly clashing with their corporate bosses over who should fill America's "knowledge" jobs.

In what is becoming the next big test of globalization, the high-tech industry wants to expand the number of foreign workers allowed into the United States to overcome a shortage of programmers and software engineers. While the industry has long brought in such workers from India, Pakistan, and other countries, it is now seeking to lift virtually all limits on the guest-worker program.

Like the recent fight over China trade, the issue pits labor groups against big business. In this case, though, the dispute isn't over assemblyline jobs. It's over skilled positions that form the struts of the New Economy. Thus the issue, now being debated in Congress, has taken on larger overtones about where America should get its intellectual capital.

"If this bill doesn't pass, many businesses will just solve the problem by moving outside the country," says E. Floyd Kvamme, a venture capitalist in Menlo Park, Calif., referring to legislation that would lift the lid on H-1B visas.

The high-tech industry has made the legislation a top priority. To businesses, the move would signal that the United States is open to globalization of its markets. Without more skilled workers, the explosive growth in Silicon Valley and elsewhere will be stifled, industry people say.

Quiet clash

Unlike the China trade issue, the industry bid to lift the limit on visas for foreign workers is not drawing major protests. No big rallies outside Congress. No saturation ad campaigns in the districts of wavering lawmakers.

But critics say the vote is critical in determining the credibility of Congress and the administration in protecting the interests of American workers, even if there is no high-voltage campaign.

"The H-1B visa bill is a sad example of the best legislation that money can buy," says Gene Nelson, a former academic and software engineer who has testified twice before congressional committees on this issue.

The H-1B visa program started in 1990 as a stopgap measure to ease the labor shortage affecting high-tech firms. In 1998, President Clinton agreed to raise the annual visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000 for three years. But the industry hit the ceiling last year and began lobbying to lift it again or eliminate it altogether.

One concern among critics is that certain protections for American workers that were supposed to be implemented haven't been.

Under the 1998 law, the Labor Department was to take steps to ensure that companies don't replace American workers with foreign laborers or pay below-market wages. This included a requirement that employers using large numbers of H-1Bs recruit American workers before hiring abroad.

These provisions were part of a "negotiated compromise" to balance the interest of industry and US workers and should be implemented immediately, said Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Immigration and Claims Subcommittee at a May 25 hearing. Labor Department officials said they face an "unusually large task" in coming up with final rules.

In the absence of such protections, older computer programmers, as well as minorities hoping to break into the profession, could lose out, critics at the hearing said. "At the same time that US high-tech employers allege a shortage of available skilled workers, this country has amassed a surprising surplus of programmers over the age of 40 who are no longer practicing their craft," said Frank Brehm, the Northwest regional coordinator of the Programmers Guild, which opposes lifting the cap.

Foreign complaints

Foreigners have complaints about the H-1B program, too. If they make their employers unhappy, they are subject to immediate deportation.

"The whole program is out of control, and there's a lot of abuse," says Singh (not his real name), a software engineer who came to the US on an H-1B visa in 1991. "A lot of Indians are working for body shops they can't leave, and have trouble finding work once they get their green card."

Under the terms of an H-1B visa, foreign workers are not allowed to leave their employers for six years. That status encourages employers to pay them less - or to hire them in place of more expensive US workers who are free to quit, critics say.

"While the industry says it needs higher skilled workers, a lot of what I see is efforts to filter out older programmers," says Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis.

Supporters of lifting the limits believe employers should be able to draw workers from around the world. "The new economy requires new Americans," says Paul Donnelly of ITEE-USA, the American branch of the world's largest technical society. The solution, he says, is to give people with H-1B visas permanent residency.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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