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H1-B1 Visa Entrapment

I've been rather bemused by the calls to increase STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) education in this country. Mostly because I think the stress is in the wrong area. The US in my opinion doesn't need any more STEM mayors. What it needs is to have the base level of understanding in those subject areas raised across all disciplines. The fact that a simple process like global warming is misunderstood and one as complex as evolution dismissed and in danger of being taught along side creationism in many states (see teach the controversy bills) are real problems. But a shortage of engineers sounds fishy to me.

I can't put my finger on why exactly that is but I have a good intuition about this things and I'll trust it. One clue however is the H1-B1 program. In my former company we had software-engineers that were part of that program and I found something strange about it right away. The visa is owned by the company you work for not the individual: it is a hidden form of indentured servitude. Now I've worked abroad and know how precious getting a work visa can be to the country you wish to work at. But by letting the companies own them, the employees can't shop around for the best salaries nor rock the boat too much in the company. H1-B1 doesn't seem to be about a shortage of engineers or talent or anything but about a shortage at the price companies would like to pay. For who would ask for a raise if your employer controlled your visa? Now I know that there are some expenses the company has to go through to acquire an H1-B1 visa, or at least I surmise there are. However, for this expenses they get a employee that is more or less married to that company regardless of the work conditions. Now the problem with this is that it depresses salaries for Americans too. If a company can pay %20 less over 6 years to a foreign national, why pay top dollar for a local one that may leave for the competition at any time?

Unlike the H1-B1 program my work visa in Japan was owned by me. It was sponsored by my employer but I could quit and it would be valid till the end of the expiration of the visa. While it was frowned upon to leave your employer that sponsored your visa you could. And this gave you great flexibility and the ability to abrogate for your work conditions to some degree.

This article has a good take on the STEM issue and it should give pause to those that wish to simplify it to an educational initiative:

In response to the alleged shortages of qualified American engineers and technology professionals, numerous initiatives have been launched to boost interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers and to strengthen STEM education in the United States. Unfortunately, these programs have not proven successful, and many blame the laziness of modern students, the ineptitude of their teachers, poor parenting or, when there are no more other excuses remaining, they may even jump to moral decay as a causative agent. However, the failure of STEM is due to the fact that the very policies that created the shortages continue unabated. [emphasis mine]


I think educational institutions respond rather well to demand, if a bit behind it. But something weird happens with technical fields. I remember that many programmers (of say COBOL) got the boot in the 80's because one ended up working for my father. I couldn't understand why a highly trained programmer wouldn't be able to find work in his field but I got it later. If the field shrinks suddenly you can't wait for it to recover. You need to find work now, you switch careers and abandon the technical field. A reason for the extreme expansion in pay for programmers during the nineties was that after the 80's contraction of programmers the Computer Science field shrank (or plateaued) , so that when the web dawned, the field was smallish and overnight in high demand.


One thing that can be done right away is to reform the H1-B1 visa so that the individual holds the visa so they can shop around. And maybe study if there really is a shortage or if it's just part of a boom-bust cycle of growth going through a trough. This 'shortage' sounds curiously like a self-created emergency.

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