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Solve High-Tech Workforce Imbalances
WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 1998 "Claims of high-tech worker shortages are inflated, the available domestic labor supply is understated, and the wisdom of expanding immigration is overrated" by groups lobbying Congress to increase or eliminate the current annual cap on H-1B skilled-employment visas, according to Dr. John R. Reinert, president of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers - USA (IEEE-USA), who testified today at immigration hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Reinert, representing the public-policy interests of 220,000 U.S. electrotechnology and information-technology professionals, urged Congress and U.S. industry to help free-market mechanisms work more efficiently to correct labor imbalances rather than "resort to increased immigration as a quick fix for growing workforce demand."
While lauding the value of "a balanced, fair and properly utilized" immigration system in promoting U.S. competitiveness, Reinert cautioned that quickly expanding the high-tech worker pool with inexpensive foreign labor would have negative short- and long-term consequences for the national interest. "Opening the immigration floodgates is a simple and easy solution that will create complex and difficult problems down the road," he stated.
"The hidden blessing in the current high-demand market for certain technical specialties is that it should encourage us to retrain displaced workers, attract under represented women and minorities, better educate our young people, and recommission willing and able older workers who have been forced out of the field," Reinert testified. "By raising the visa limits, the government instead would provide a powerful incentive to squander these important national resources and cause an increasing erosion of our domestic technical infrastructure."
After noting that salary studies fail to support the notion of a widespread shortage of technical professionals, Reinert argued that advocates of increased immigration have oversimplified the dynamics of labor supply. "Since engineering employment increased by 12 percent during the past decade even as engineering degree awards declined 17 percent, weknow that supply is much more than a function of degree output," he said." In fact, more than 80 percent of those working now as computer scientists, systems analysts and programmers have educational backgrounds in other fields. Future growth in the supply of electrotechnology and information technology workers will come not only from a recent upsurge in enrollments in technical-degree programs, but also from retraining of workers made available by continuing layoffs, early retirements and transfers from other fields."
Reinert also recalled "the checkered history of using immigration to avert predicted high-tech worker shortages." In the late 1980s, an expanding economy and National Science Foundation reports of an impending shortage of engineers led Congress in 1990 to create the H-1B visa program, which was followed shortly by a recession, large-scale defense cutbacks, and the corporate restructuring movement. The combination of lowered workforce demand and expanded immigration resulted by 1994 in historically high levels of engineering unemployment and the lowest real engineering salaries in two decades, according to Reinert. In addition, he said, the H-1B system has been abused, causing U.S. workers to be fired and replaced by lower-paid foreign workers. "The potential for large-scale abuse of the H-1B program -- highlighted in a 1995 Labor Department Inspector General's report -- is still there, since legislative and regulatory attempts to reform the system have been thwarted over the past several years," he stated.
"Our choice now is not easy but it is clear," concluded Reinert. "Training and education will help the free market utilize our domestic technical labor supply more efficiently -- resulting in many benefits to American industry, workers and the nation. Substantially increased immigration will likely lead to potential abuses of U.S. and foreign workers now and a decline in economic competitiveness, living standards and national security for years to come."
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Pender M. McCarter, APR