Adding more fuel to what has become a highly politicized issue in this election year, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently announced the cap for H-1B visas for highly skilled temporary foreign workers for the upcoming federal fiscal year was reached in less than a week.

Demand for foreign tech workers outstripped the congressionally mandated supply for the fourth year in a row. The visas are capped at 65,000 per year, plus another 20,000 for holders of advanced degrees, for a total of 85,000. USCIS will now use a computer-generated process, also known as the lottery, to randomly select the winning petitions needed to meet the caps.

The visa cap has been reached within a week for each of the past four years, and USCIS had anticipated the same timeframe again this year. As a point of reference, USCIS received nearly 233,000 petitions last year for H-1B visas, up 35% from 172,500 in 2014. While the majority of H-1B visas go to workers in the tech sector they are also used for professionals in advertising, architecture and other fields.

The stated purpose of the H-1b program is to allow US-based companies to temporarily import high-skilled foreign workers when they can’t find American workers willing or able to do the job. Many high-tech companies have very publicly lobbied for the visa program’s expansion as a solution for the prevailing talent scarcity they face.

Critics have long contended that the true purpose of the program is to help big businesses cut costs by engaging foreign workers who are willing to work for lower wages than US workers. Many well-known US companies have been accused of this practice in an effort to cut their labor costs.

“There’s a lot of evidence now that the program is used for cheap labor in the tech industry,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, a workplace think tank. “The fact that reforms have not been agreed upon in Congress, despite all the attention, shows just how important the H-1B program is to the business community.”

Critics also highlight that many H-1Bs are issued to global outsourcing companies, especially those from India, that send workers to the US in order to acquire skills and then move them back overseas. This common practice essentially promotes the outsourcing of American jobs while costing American workers valuable on-the-job training, learning, and career advancement opportunities.

To counter this argument, lobbyists for the program point to the high demand as evidence of a shortage of STEM workers for hire in the United States, and insist access to these imported workers is important for the economic growth and vitality of the US economy.

Like most political issues, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The H-1B topic highlights the dynamic changes which are driving the growth of the independent workforce, and the complexity for buyers of talent which TalentWave helps clients resolve. These market forces will continue to accelerate as the Baby Boomer generation exits the workforce in greater numbers. There is little argument that we are not creating enough domestic STEM workers to meet demand. However, if there is an alternative supply available at lower rates, even if the quality and/or experience is not on par, then profit-driven companies may decide it is in their best interest to engage foreign workers over US workers.

Image Attribution:
Wikipedia.” United States Citizenship and Immigration Services