Are Americans Losing High-Skilled Jobs to Foreigners?

Feb 1, 2012 2:15pm

Jennifer Wedel’s encounter with President Obama Monday has sparked debate on a controversial issue that many say lies at the heart of the U.S. economy: visas for high-skilled foreign workers.

Wedel’s husband, a semi-conductor engineer, hasn’t had a permanent job for three years. When she raised the issue during Monday’s Google+ “Hangout,” and asked why foreign workers were getting visas for high-skilled work, the president expressed surprise and asked her to send him her husband’s resume.

Wedel, 29, said she received a call from the White House deputy chief of staff for operations the next day, who told her that the president personally made sure that Darin Wedel’s resume got sent to companies in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where they live.

But the mother of two says her campaign to raise awareness about H1B visas – those granted to foreign workers – is far from over.

“We are extremely grateful for that opportunity but there are still many Americans with college education and no jobs,” Wedel told ABC News. “The issue we want to raise is every little corner we can find that may possibly lead to extra jobs [we should], and H1B is one of them. We do not think at all it should be done away with and we are not bashing foreigners, but the cap is still 85,000 and it’s been 85,000 for a few years. Take 30,000 off.”

Sixty-five thousand H1B visas are given to companies every year, and 20,000 are given to foreign workers with a U.S. master’s degree or higher. The number of such visas that allow foreign workers in specialty occupations to temporarily remain in the United States for six years dropped from 195,000 to 65,000 in 2003 after a temporary expansion. As with other visas, fees for H1Bs have increased in recent years. But demand for foreign workers remains high.

In 2010, there were nearly half a million workers on H1B visas in the United States, 18 percent higher than in 2001.

Proponents such as Bill Gates — who formerly headed Microsoft, the largest employer of high-skilled foreign workers — say the program for high-skilled foreign workers should be extended and that U.S. immigration policy should have “an exception for smart people.”

A report by the Technology Policy Institute in March 2009 found that in the absence of green card and H1B visa constraints in the 2003-2007 period, roughly 182,000 foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities would likely have remained in the country and raised the gross domestic product (GDP) by roughly $13.6 billion.

Encouraging more high-skilled foreigners to work in the United States is not just an idea endorsed by the president, but also those who swing to the right politically.

“Do skilled immigrants contribute to productivity growth? The answer is a clear yes,” wrote Nick Schulz, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Many of us are familiar with skilled immigrants starting great, transformative American companies.”

But opponents of the program say it simply takes away jobs that could have gone to U.S. workers and the idea by companies that there’s a shortage of high-skilled U.S. workers is just a myth.

“H1B workers tend to work longer hours, they are not going to discuss their wages, some of them don’t have families – if they do they are not here in this country – they are the perfect worker as far as big corporations are concerned,” Wedel said. “I can understand why they do it. It is a perfect business move, but it is not right.”

Republicans pounced on the president’s comments expressing surprise that Darin Wedel, 40, cannot find a job, painting them as “out of touch.” The Republican National Committee launched a new website “NotBetterOff.com” and email campaign asking Americans to submit their resumes to the White House.

But observers say the political pandering misses the reality of the corporate world.

“The No. 1 issue in the tech world is as people get older, they generally become more expensive,” said Vivek Wadhwa, an adviser to start-ups and an entrepreneurship scholar affiliated with Duke University. “So if you’re an employer who can hire a worker fresh out of college who is making $60,000 versus an older worker whose making $150,000, and the younger worker has skills that are fresher, who would you hire?”

Another problem in the tech and engineering field is that they are located in certain parts of the world, and if workers are unwilling to relocate, they will have a harder time finding employment.

“The easier thing is to blame foreigners for it,” Wadhwa said. “By vilifying foreigners who are creating jobs, they are leaving the country and taking jobs back with them.”

The issue is likely to stay in the forefront as the economy takes center stage in the November election, and people such as Wedel say they will continue to press lawmakers to lower the number of foreign workers.

“I really feel like I was kind of brushed off [by Obama] and be made to be quiet about it,” she said of her encounter with the president. “But not every middle-American gets to talk to the president and I want to do what’s right.”

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