A decade ago, the high-tech industry was clamoring for a higher cap on H-1B visas — a specialty visa that allows high-skilled foreign workers to hold jobs in the US. Currently, the US can allow 65,000 foreign workers to reside and work in the US for up to six years. The tech industry used to think that number was too low, and almost annually would lobby to increase the cap.
This year, as of April 1 — the date the US begins to accept petitions for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2012 — only 8,000 workers applied for H-1Bs, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) statistics cited by the The Wall Street Journal. That compares with 16,500 petitions in April 2010 and about 45,000 in April 2009, according to USCIS.
In 2008 and 2009, the 65,000 quota was filled within days, according to the WSJ.
The lack of interest in H-1Bs is surprising, even if tech jobs in the US are hard to come by. H-1Bs are set aside for jobs that can't be filled by a US applicant, and the application process is rigorous. Theoretically, these jobs seek the best of the best and have vigorously been defended by the tech industry whenever efforts to reduce the cap arise.
The WSJ article goes on to analyze some of the reasons behind the trend:
- Several factors have contributed to the decline in H-1B visas, including the lackluster pace of the U.S. recovery, more opportunities for skilled workers in their home nations and higher visa fees, which appear to have spurred Indian companies operating in the U.S. to seek fewer visas. Attacks on the program by congressional foes of U.S. immigration policies have also cast a shadow over it.
H-1Bs have always been a hot button in high-tech. Proponents argue they are good for the industry because they bring specialty skills into the US. Opponents argue they displace US workers that need jobs. But if foreign workers are content to stay put, there's a bigger issue at hand.
The electronics industry is playing on a global stage, and the competition for talent is now worldwide. The tech industry is still a growth industry — recent financial results have been strong, demand for electronics continues to be high, and companies are hiring overseas. So the issue doesn't seem to be with high-tech — it's high-tech jobs in the US. If the US is no longer attractive to talented professionals, the problem is policy, not industry. And policy is no longer working for high-tech.