Labor shortage Band-Aid

By Gael Core, ITworld.com |  Career

For the past decade a low drone of unease has been resonating from executive
boardrooms, where the dire need to fill IT jobs has reached crisis proportions. And the
problem isn't expected to go away anytime soon. With 850,000 unfilled IT positions
expected in the next 12 months, computer companies have been urging the United States
Congress to address the problem by increasing the number of H-1B temporary work visas.
But importing temporary technology talent from other countries is not necessarily the
answer.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has doled out 115,000 H-1B visas this year,
the same figure as last year. That number was up from 65,000 in 1998. This year's
allotment was already filled by March; in 1999, the cap was hit by mid-June. Several
different legislative efforts are under way to curtail the labor shortage by relaxing
immigration restrictions.

The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act, recently approved by the
Senate Judiciary Committee, was supported by both Democrats and Republicans. This bill
aims to increase the cap on H-1B visas to 195,000 for each of the next three years. But
industry insiders say the visas are only a Band-Aid solution for what's clearly a
long-term problem.

A study by the Information Technology Association of America, a trade association based
in Arlington, Va., reports that 1.6 million new IT jobs will open over the next 12
months, and half of these positions are likely to go unfilled. The labor crunch is
growing in the United States. Raising the number of H-1B visas will not solve the
problem or eliminate the crisis, say several analysts.

The visa program was first introduced in 1990 with the goal of bringing in foreign
workers to temporarily fill jobs for which there were no American candidates. As a
result of the technology boom of the 1990's, this temporary need mushroomed into what
appears to be a never-ending demand for skilled workers.

More specifically, H-1B visas allow foreign workers with college degrees to live and
work in the United States for up to six years. The cost for companies is not cheap:
application fees are $1,000 per candidate, plus legal fees, which can drive the total
expense to about $5,000. The application process is also an obstacle, taking up to
three months to complete. And if the H-1B candidate is not granted a green card at the
end of the six-year visa term, the company is back to square one.

For Marc Armstrong, director of recruiting at Pervado Systems, a product ownership
services start-up, the capping of H-1B visas is a positive. It means that the process
time for transferring the holder of a H-1B visa from another company is cut from three
months down to six weeks. "The 'application' process for transfers gets cut down,
roughly in half," says Armstrong.

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