Magazine article The American Prospect

High Tech Migrant Labor

Magazine article The American Prospect

High Tech Migrant Labor

Article excerpt


Guest workers: They're not just picking vegetables anymore. A new class of "migrant workers" is taking shape in America's Silicon Valley and other technology centers. These immigrants are not sneaking over U.S. borders--they arrive by jet from India, the Philippines, China, and Taiwan to take jobs in computer programming, software design, and information services.

And America's information technology industry wants more of them. "Forget the Huddled Masses," a recent BusinessWeek article proclaimed. "Send Nerds." Industry leaders claim they face a shortage of skilled high-tech professionals--a problem they fear will only get worse. A 1997 Bureau of Labor Statistics study projected there will be 1.3 million new info-tech jobs over the coming decade.

Lobbyists representing Microsoft, Texas Instruments, and Sun Microsystems have taken their case to Congress. The industries want to import more foreign workers through the H-1B visa program, which allows temporary guest workers into the country. This fall, California Representative David Dreier and Texas Senator Phil Gramm introduced bills to almost double the number of H-1B visas granted annually, raising the ceiling to 200,000. "If cutting-edge technology companies do not have access to growing numbers of highly skilled personnel," said Dreier, "it will threaten our nation's ability to maintain robust economic growth."

Nobody is sure just how severe or real the info-tech labor shortage is. A report by the Washington, D.C.-based Computing Research Association in May concluded, "We cannot state conclusively that there is a shortage or quantify how large it might be."

Meanwhile, abundant anecdotal evidence indicates that some American technology workers, especially older ones, have a hard time finding steady work in their fields. William Spence, one of several workers contacted for this story, told of getting cut from his Stanford University job when a government grant expired. A 49-year-old research scientist, Spence entered the Silicon Valley job market thinking that his signal processing and programming experience would transfer easily into the cell-phone industry. But after putting out more than 500 resumes, he got only two interviews, and no offers. "And I have another 15 years to work," said Spence. Gene Nelson, 47, found it just as difficult in Dallas. Nelson worked on cutting-edge pin-based computing, which is used in "Palm Pilot" technology. Nelson says high-tech firms have given him the cold shoulder even though he has enrolled in retraining programs to keep his skills up to date. For a while, he answered phones for Microsoft from inside a six-by-six-foot cubicle. But the job didn't last. "It's good you're calling me on your nickel," he said. "Because right now, I'm out of a job."

The H-1B program depresses industry's incentive to retrain and hire workers like Nelson. America's technology sector understands that generally tight labor markets make it difficult to keep labor costs down, and the industry likes to be choosy. Increasing the supply of foreign workers could be just the ticket. And the industry has powerful friends in Congress.


A consensus in favor of the high-tech guest-worker program has emerged among Republicans in Congress--a noteworthy development in light of past clashes in the GOP over immigration. Traditionally the party divides between closed-border restrictionists, who fear that too much immigration will drive up welfare spending and overpopulate the country, and open-border libertarians, who prefer perfect labor mobility across nations.

Yet last year, Congress increased the cap on H-1B guest workers from 65,000 per year to 115,000 with overwhelming Republican support. In the final Senate vote, only one Republican, Tim Hutchinson from Arkansas, opposed the bill (with Alfonse D'Amato from New York and Lauch Faircloth from North Carolina sitting out). …

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