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Last week an Economist piece on H1B visas offered the following tidbit. "The cap on visas is entirely arbitrary and unnecessary, and almost certainly imposes high economic costs on the country." Well, it only took a few days for Facebook (NASDAQ: FB ) CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come up with a solution -- offer more of them.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Zuckerberg argued that the U.S. needs to do more to attract highly skilled immigrants in order to keep up with the rest of the world. His solution involves increasing the number of H1B visas and letting those visa holders stick around longer. In this effort, he's being supported by executives from Google, LinkedIn, and Yahoo!, to name just a few.
The current situation
Right now, the US gives out 65,000 H1B visas each year. This year, it took less than a week to issue all of them -- hope you applied early. The government issues H1B visas in partnership with business, which are supposed to use the visas to "employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields, including but not limited to: scientists, engineers, or computer programmers."
The program is not designed to find employees who are smarter, faster, or generally better than American employees. It is instead designed to increase the pool of skilled workers by tapping international resources. Zuckerberg alluded to this point in his piece, writing, "[T]he more people who know something, the better educated and trained we all are, the more productive we become, and the better off everyone in our nation can be." His point being that we should get as many skilled people as we can if we want to compete at the highest level.
The "problems" with H1B
Since we're talking about it, there is clearly another side to the story. Those who argue against the H1B program expansion say that it drags down incomes, takes jobs away from Americans, or fails to capture the best possible candidates. I've already pointed out that the purpose of the program isn't to get the top echelon of workers, but simply to increase the pool. The other two points are also simple misunderstandings of the actual system, and neither of them should stop us from expanding the program, as Zuckerberg suggests.
Income being dragged down by foreign workers is a traditional response to any increase in the foreign labor. It's a common response because it's true, to some degree. By increasing the availability of labor, you drive down the value of that labor. But what we don't take into account is the value that the labor provides us as a whole.
A recent study found that while wages are decreased, overall output increases and the economy profits. That study took into account both illegal and legal immigrants, and the positive effects would likely be expanded due to an increase in the H1B population, as it applies to high margin fields, like software development.
The second concern is that an increase in the number of H1B holders would take jobs away from Americans. However, The Wall Street Journal has published a breakdown of unemployment by field, and computer related fields tend to have unemployment rates between 3% and 4%, which indicates that the sector is doing well, and can sustain the increase in the labor force.
The bottom line
Zuckerberg is right, and we should be embracing an increase in the skilled labor force across the technology sector. By increasing H1B visas, we increase the overall output of the sector, and ensure that America maintains a strong position in the global tech industry. This will be an important lobbying topic over the next few years, and a positive result would mean great things for the companies involved, as well as the economy as a whole.
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