At the end of January, President Obama was on the Web hosting a Google+ hangout when one guest complained that her husband, a semiconductor engineer, had been out of work for three years. She followed up by asking the president why visa programs for foreign workers were still in effect when many highly skilled Americans were unemployed.
Obama said he'd been told by industry representatives that they only used the visas—like the H-1b visa for foreign workers sponsored by their American employers—when they couldn't find people with comparable skill sets here. "If your send me your husband's resume," he told the woman, whose name was Jennifer Wedel, "I'd be interested in finding out exactly what's happening right there."
In many media, the incident turned into a mini-soap opera: Would the president help Wedel's husband find a job? But the more important question is: Will he follow through, get past the line he's been fed by industry and find out "what's happening right there"?
Those who care about unemployment in America should hope he will, because what's happening is not only keeping highly skilled Americans out of work; it's threatening to undermine the education system that gives them their training, since if American-educated engineers and others with advanced technical backgrounds can't find work in their fields, the programs that train them will wither.
It's all detailed in a study by Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology titled "H-1B and L-1 Visa Programs: Out of Control," released more than a year ago by the Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/publications/entry/bp280).
What Hira pinpoints as the central flaw in the visa programs is related to what Obama said he was going to check out: though the rationale for the programs was to enable employers to hire foreigners with skills American workers don't have, there's in fact no requirement that they search the American labor market before hiring foreign workers, often forcing their American counterparts to train them, and sometimes sending them back overseas to help outsource the work they learned to do here.
So American firms can simply tell the Department of Labor—as they told the president—that they can't find highly specialized workers here. Then they can get the visas, hire people from abroad, and pay them less than Americans for the same work (on average about $13,000 less, according to another study using information from 2005). That in turn puts unfair pressure on firms that employ Americans and pay standard wages.
The visa programs were established in 1990, when the U. S. had a shortage of skilled workers in high-tech industries. That changed, but the programs continued—with no requirement that employers document a shortage of American workers with the skills they need. There are now a million guest workers in the U.S. with H-1B or L-1 visas, and the major impact of their presence is in information technology, where the visa programs have cost Americans tens of thousands of jobs if not more, Hira estimated.
Hira advocated reforming the visa programs, not eliminating them—in particular, requiring companies to verify that Americans with the skills they need cannot be found, and to pay foreign workers standard wages. (Some of Hira's concerns have been echoed in legislation proposed by senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Grassley of Iowa.)
The consequence of keeping the programs in operation without overhauling them, Hira wrote, "would include: increased offshoring of high-wage, high-tech jobs; the further erosion of America's technological leadership; displacement of American technology workers... unfair competition for small American technology companies; a clear signal from the U.S. government to young Americans that they should not pursue careers in the science, engineering, and technology fields; and the exploitation of thousands of foreign guest workers."