Are tech H1-B visas actually that big of a deal? How we even evaluate the question?


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Over the decades, the number of H-1B workers allowed into the US each year has grown. With the 1998 update, the visa cap lifted to 115,000. In 2000, the limit was boosted again, this time up to 195,000. That year, the law was also tweaked so that renewals no longer counted toward the cap. In 2004, the cap was reset to 65,000, but an exemption was added for 20,000 students graduating from US institutions with master’s degrees. Exemptions were also added for workers affiliated with academic institutions, which can include schools and teaching hospitals. According to Ron Hira, a professor of Public Policy at Howard University who has studied the H-1B issue and testified about it before the Senate, the actual number of visas handed out each year has been around 135,000 over the last five years. Link

There’s a good rant on the relative importance of all of this in last week’s Political Gabfest. While us “on-shore” workers in the tech industry may see that 135,000 as a threat to our cashflow, it’s a drop in the bucket of employment in America. As Adam Davidson argues well, therefore, worrying about H1-B visas should be pretty low on the list of how to setup up more people with good jobs:

The question of H-1B visas has rhetorical importance far beyond its actual economic relevance. The unemployment rate for computer and mathematical occupations is, currently, 2.1 per cent. This is what economists consider full employment, meaning that pretty much everyone who wants a job has a job or is in a brief hiatus between positions. The number of jobs in those fields is growing fast—by about twelve per cent a year—and the number of qualified workers is not growing enough to catch up. In short, the plight of computer professionals is on few people’s list of urgent concerns…. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, ten thousand computer professionals start a new job every working day. In this context, the eighty-five thousand foreigners given H-1B visas each year represent little more than statistical noise.

He goes off an a political jag after this saying that the H1-B discussion is a proxy for “fear of brown people,” which certainly has appeal to leftist people like myself. There’s a business question here, too, though: are H1-B visas a good idea and why? Are they ethical and effective?

What types of jobs?

Also, some interesting analysis of the types of jobs H1-B visas are used for. Mostly for jobs at outsourcing firms:

But it’s how H1-B visas are being used by applicants that’s really changed. Data from the 2016 batch of H-1B petitions show that the top 10 sponsors of H-1B visa workers in the US are all corporations with large outsourcing businesses: Indian companies like Infosys, Tata, and Wipro, which pioneered the business, and US-based firms like IBM, Accenture, and Cognizant, which saw the success of the Indian contractors and began offing their own competing outsourcing programs. Those 10 firms have more workers currently employed through the program than the next 90 companies combined, a group that includes all of America’s largest tech companies and banks.

So, the discussion about H1-B visas in tech ii, by bulk, about the 60,000+ jobs in IT outsourcing. This is in addition to the estimated 1.7m off-shore jobs in outsourcing already.

In theory, most of these are “lower value” jobs where you’re more operating IT (help-desks, managing the daily operations of enterprise applications) rather than creating it (like programming). Anecdotally, there’s still programming running around in there, esp. when it comes to modernizing applications. The going theory is that you can’t just slot in workers on higher-value IT work like writing custom software.

How do you think about all this?

There’s an odd ethical vs. business-sense argument scurrying about as well that I’ve never seen addressed. One, you’d seem to be happy that the H1-B visa worker was getting work. By nature of accepting the job and up-rooting themselves, it must be good for them: or, at least, better than other alternatives. Also, if it’s actually cheaper to get the same services/output from an H1-B visa worker, why would you pay more for “native” worker? On the other hand, it’s equally confusing to figure out what companies “owe” workers that they’re firing in favor of the H1-B visa workers.

Tech companies like to skirt all that by talking about “we have to hire from a global pool,” which is fine if you’re hiring for an individual with unique skills. However, the divide between outsourcing firms and tech companies suggests that the bulk of H1-B visa hires in tech are not for all the super unique, AI experts that may not live on-shore. Then again, it’s insulting to even think that: why do I value one set of people over another in any context?

Businesses say they’re not satisfied

However we figure out talking about this, it’s clear from surveys that companies are dodgy on the value of outsourcing. As I summarizing some HfS work recently:

Outsourcers too often do exactly what the contract (from five to ten years ago) says instead of helping you innovate and keep the business growing. Itʼs little wonder that in a recent study, more than 75% of senior executives said they want to replace their legacy outsourcers because those providers are so unwilling to change to new models.


If we take Adam Davidson’s perspective, it’s not really even a problem worth thinking about (versus all the other hair-on-fire issue we have). However, when it comes to outsourcing (which I’ve shifted to because so many H1-B visa workers end up at outsourcing firms), it’s clear that we could be doing much better.

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