Foreign tech workers in the spotlight thanks to Trump's latest executive order

Trump is pushing for a review of H1-B visas for highly skilled foreigners.

ByABC News
April 18, 2017, 6:38 PM

— -- In front of hundreds of employees of a shop equipment manufacturer, President Donald Trump signed his "Buy American, Hire American" executive order on Tuesday.

Among other provisions, the order calls on federal agencies to suggest reforms for the H-1B visa program, which "allows companies in the United States to temporarily employ foreign workers in occupations that require the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge," according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

While the order was signed in front of a roomful of Snap-on equipment manufacturers, its effects are likely to be felt in a totally different industry.

“It is tech that would be most affected,” Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told ABC News.

In 2015, some 66 percent of H1-B visas were going to people with computer-related jobs, she said. Compare that to 9 percent going to employees in architecture, surveying and engineering; and 5 percent in education.

The White House has framed the executive order as Trump making good on his campaign promise to prioritize U.S. workers.

“In recent years, several companies have received widespread attention for laying off U.S. workers and replacing them by hiring foreign outsourcing companies that bring in individuals on H-1B visas,” Pierce said.

However, it may not be the case that workers across the tech industry more broadly are harmed by foreign workers coming into the U.S. on H-1B visas.

One study by the Partnership for a New American Economy Action Fund found that in 2016, employers in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields “faced a dire picture,” with 13 STEM job posted online for every unemployed worker.

That equaled “roughly 3 million more jobs than the number of available, trained professional who could potentially fill them,” researchers found.

The White House has said that “around 80% of workers on H-1Bs” make “less than the median wage for their field.”

One possible explanation, Pierce said, was “that individuals on H-1B visas tend to be younger and earlier on in their careers.”

“Over 92 percent of H-1B temporary workers are between the ages of 20 to 39, while only 46 percent of the overall IT workforce is in the same age range,” she said.

The order signed on Tuesday does not make any immediate changes to the way that H-1B visas are given out -- it simply calls on agencies to make suggestions for how the system could be reformed.

It could be some time before we know just how the tech industry will be impacted by any forthcoming reform proposals.

That it is in part because “we do not know anything about the companies that make up the end-users of H-1B labor,” Pierce said.

She explained that when outsourcing companies file applications for temporary foreign workers, they are not required to say what companies they will ultimately serve.

“There is no information on who these companies are, what fields they are in, or their size,” she added.

ABC News’ Katherine Faulders contributed to this report from Kenosha, Wis.

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