Are you an American with expertise in computer programming, engineering or business analytics? If so, you probably have a good job, because employers gobble up all the high-tech talent they can find. In fact, there’s a shortage of qualified candidates for many specialized fields, which hampers American enterprises. That’s why the U.S. government allows companies to hire high-skilled foreign workers through the H-1B visa program.
This valuable program requires a global mindset to appreciate — it’s the opposite of the America Firs” sloganeering President Donald Trump often favors. But we’re glad to see that as the president considers immigration changes, including ridiculous ideas like getting Mexico to pay for a big wall, he isn’t pushing to eliminate H-1B visas. He said while visiting Kenosha, Wis., this week that he wants to keep the foreign talent pipeline open while making some fixes that should help more Americans get into these professions. That seems like a good, balanced approach.
Most jobs in the U.S. are available only to legal residents, of course, but the H-1B program provides 85,000 visas a year to skilled foreigners in tech and other specialties. The three-year visas, sponsored by an employer and renewable once, go like hotcakes. They are distributed via lottery, with about 199,000 applications received this year. The number’s down from 236,000 last year, likely because some foreigners are wary of Trump’s immigration rhetoric.
These visas are intended for use by employers when they can’t find a qualified U.S. worker to hire. Ideally, the American education system would churn out enough qualified graduates in the science-technology-engineering-math realm to fill every possible job slot. Why that’s not the case is a conversation for another day. But even if it were so, there’s reason to give employers opportunities to hire a certain number of exceptional foreigners who bring unique abilities to the table. Many are graduates of American universities and should be encouraged to stay and contribute to the U.S. economy instead of taking their talents home to Shanghai or Mumbai.
Criticism of H-1B allotment focuses on the fact that it skews toward positions at the cheaper end of the talent pool. A big user of the program is the tech outsourcing industry, which places lots of workers from India in U.S. jobs paying near the $60,000 minimum for H-1B visa holders. The practice got attention after IT workers at Walt Disney World claimed they were forced to train foreign replacement workers who would earn less than they had.
In Kenosha, Trump said the H-1B program “should include only the most skilled and highest-paid applicants and should never, ever be used to replace American workers.” He signed an executive order directing his administration to review the program to cut down on abuses and protect citizens.
The right way to look at the program is to be mercenary about it: These visas exist to boost the U.S. economy. So sure, make some slots available for IT outsourcing jobs because some U.S. companies need those services. But those lower-paying positions should be made scarcer and more expensive to fill, in order to prod employers to hire and train Americans. The priority should be on giving visas to advanced-degree holders and other specialists earning higher pay because they will make the greatest contributions. The retooled program should also make sure smaller firms, including startups, have a chance to participate. There’s legislation floating around Congress with bipartisan support already pointing in the right direction. Trump’s order, based on the same logic, is smart policy.
The existence of the H-1B visa program is a reminder that there’s a world of talent out there. The global economy is competitive. Let’s make sure the best of that brainpower has opportunities to work in the United States.