If you ask many domestic tech workers, H-1B is a problem. Ask the executives hiring foreign workers, and they often say there’s not enough talent stateside to keep business operations up and running. As the debate rages on, we’re left to wonder if a stronger remote-work culture might ease tensions.
According to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) study, nearly a quarter-million (237,837 if you’re interested) H-1B jobs went to those working in “computer-related occupations” during 2016. That’s 69.1 percent of all H-1B visas granted last year.
Distilling the numbers a bit further, 203,025 H-1B visas went to workers in “systems analysis and programming.” Some 58.8 percent of all H-1B visa holders were in this category. Unfortunately, we can’t say which positions they actually hold.
It’s a tricky situation. Legally, companies can’t pay an H-1B visa recipient any less than a domestic worker in the same position, so it’s not a cost-saving technique (at least in theory). But many critics claim there’s plenty of domestic talent, and that’s antithetical to sourcing overseas tech workers.
Outsourcing itself is a related issue, and it’s typically a move to supplant entire departments or branches of an operation. That’s in contrast to H-1B, meant for individual jobs, with workers brought stateside. They stay, too; the percentage of H-1B workers who are given jobs and continue in their positions year-over-year is nearly identical.
Could a stronger remote culture help heal the issues related to H-1B and outsourcing? Ed Szofer, CEO of SenecaGlobal, said: “SenecaGlobal’s team has done this successfully for close to 20 years, without ever tapping the H1-B model and without migrating any workers. Local talent in the US is supplemented with global talent, where everyone works from their own country. This model also ensures that American technology workers are not put at a disadvantage.”
Szofer also notes subcontracting labor is a bad move:
When the companies need H1-B workers onsite, they should eliminate or reduce the number of middle men involved. Subcontracting and multiple layers of subcontracting have reduced the value the companies are getting at the end. When someone enters the US with an H1-B visa, they are supposed to have a place to work. Why are they shopping around for a job upon arrival? The truth is that many of these workers without skill are entering without a real job that is a prerequisite to get an H1-B. When they are subcontracted at multiple levels, the problems only get compounded.
Szofer hits on a touchy subject with regard to ‘local’ talent. Even in Silicon Valley, many companies have trouble encouraging developers and engineers to commute more than an hour from their homes (each way) for a good job. As a result, companies with a bustling remote work culture are at an advantage in tight talent markets.
Dice data shows that working remotely is something many professionals in the tech industry are actively seeking. The headaches of acquiring and managing an H-1B visa could very well drive a tech firm into looking at how well it could manage remote employees, instead. Evidence suggests that remote workers are just as capable and performant as those who drag themselves into an office every day.
While we wait for the visa program’s federal reform (if any), there’s still reason to think changes to the H-1B program should be tackled on a company level first. In that case, remote employees might be an avenue worth pursuing.