Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

Following on from the November election there has been renewed talk about visa reform, and three parts of the discussion are relevant to our tech community here in Hawaii.  Proposed actions include easing visa requirements for international graduates in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) fields, creating a new “Start-Up Visa” for entrepreneurs, and raising the quota for H-1B high-skilled workers, a category heavily used in the technology area.

It looks like the “Fiscal Cliff” budget negotiations will be the main focus of attention in Washington, D.C. through the end of the year, with Congress likely to take up immigration in early 2013.  An early signal that some kind of movement came on November 30, with the Republican-led House of Representatives  approving a new immigrant visa category f... graduates.  There was a distinct political play embedded in the legislation, which would have ended the Diversity Lottery Program. This may have enticed some anti-immigration votes to join, but put off too many pro-immigration votes to make a workable proposal. The legislation was defeated in the Senate.  Watch for a proposal that does not include a “poison pill” to see how much true support this idea has.

Defeat of the STEM bill notwithstanding, there does seem to be a growing consensus that the U.S. is facing a shortage of qualified workers in STEM related fields.  An article in Human Resource Executive Magazine provides a good example of this view and outlines the efforts of the Microsoft Corporation to keep up with IT workforce development.  The idea of special visas for STEM workers may be part of the overall movement towards immigration reform, as suggested by tech magnate Steve Case, incidentally a Hawaii native.

With the motivation towards STEM visas being essentially driven by business and an economic analysis indicating positive job creation ..., this is something that can find support from Republicans, who have lately been criticized for their vocal anti-immigration positions.  The new proposals are aimed at giving some form of preferential visa status to graduates in these disciplines, including what has been described as “stapling a green card to their diplomas.”  Reasonable observers will know immediately that getting lawful permanent residence in the United States is never going to be quite that easy, but there are reasons to pay attention to this new interest in getting visa reform done. 

A perceived need for a short-term increase in STEM qualified workers, in combination with our own domestic efforts at workforce development, seems like a sound investment in much needed economic growth.  This resonates here in Hawaii, where our own tech industries struggle to match skills and opportunities.  As the economic argument for visa reform gains strength, with a focus on pushing the economy out of its long slump, a fresh view of visa reform may take hold.

Keeping STEM graduates in the U.S., expanding availability for high-skilled worker H-1B visas, and providing visas for tech-oriented immigrant entrepreneurs would give a boost to our own tech community as well.  Critical mass in the tech sector has been somewhat elusive for Hawaii, and every effort that promotes skills and innovative ventures should be welcomed.  The fact that we have bright young people who have studied here in Hawaii, even in some cases winning awards for technology Business Plans, but being unable to stay after they graduate and develop their careers here in Hawaii is not helping.

Still, the fact remains that there is a strong anti-immigration faction in the U.S. body politic and many politicians are unwilling to take a stand that would offend that group.  A good cross-section of the positions in this debate can be found in an article in U.S. News and World Report, and you can see that there will not be any political unanimity on this type of visa.  Even so, a smart guess is that something is coming, and that when the U.S. Congress gets around to the topic of immigration in the early part of 2013, we’ll see more for support visa reform, particularly in the tech sector.

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Comment by J. David Beutel on April 7, 2013 at 8:38pm

I had heard that all the H-1B visas were snapped up in 5 days, and expected corporations to claim that they need more.  The Economist article says that they will not steal American jobs because

given the cost and difficulty of getting a visa, few firms would give a foreigner a job if they could find a suitable candidate at home.

What if those firms can find people overseas who are willing to work for less?  The Economist seems disingenuous not to mention that.

I had also read Joseph's post recently, and what struck me from the full infographic was the statistic that 51.9% of people with a STEM Master's degree are "earning more than average for own education level (across all occupations)".  If I am interpreting that correctly, 48.1% of people with a STEM Master's degree are earning less than average.  That's an underwhelming 1.9% advantage in return for the cost and difficulty of getting a STEM Master's degree.  For a STEM Doctoral, it shows that 39.4% earn above average.  So, 60.6% earn below average?  That is not encouraging for the STEM Doctoral pipeline.

Rather than offer better compensation, it seems like these corporations want to speed up the downward spiral:  get more H-1B visas to work for less, which encourages fewer Americans to get a STEM education, which creates the need for more H-1B visas.

Comment by John Robert Egan on April 6, 2013 at 5:49pm

I completely agree that there are a number of large IT consulting firms gaming the H-1B visa system, and this needs to be stopped. By applying for more visas than they can possible use, and then shopping the work opportunities out as "outsourced" temporary tech workers, these companies are denying smaller local firms, many in the start-up stage, and in actual need of talent, from using the H-1B system for its original purpose.

We need to do both, clean up the visa system and reassess the quota. Here's a link to what the Economist has to say about this year's H-1B visa blowout.

For a clear idea about why we even need to be discussing visas for STEM related work, take a look at what our fellow Tech Hui blogger, Joseph Lui, has to say about the deficit in the home-grown STEM pipeline.

Comment by J. David Beutel on April 6, 2013 at 10:08am

Rather than increasing the number of H-1B visas, I think we need to stop giving them to companies that transfer jobs offshore or pay their foreign workers less.  This recent story on All Things Considered found that most H-1B visas went to offshore outsourcing firms, not companies like Microsoft.  It quoted a public policy professor from RIT:

"What these firms have done is exploit the loopholes in the H-1B program to bring in on-site workers to learn the jobs [of] the Americans to then ship it back offshore," he says. "And also to bring in on-site workers who are cheaper on the H-1B and undercut American workers right here."

That might be good for corporations, but not for American workers.  Is this addressed by STEM visa reform?

Comment by John Robert Egan on January 28, 2013 at 9:59am

Tony, it looks like High Tech/High Skilled visas will be part of the new Immigration reform package being pushed in Washington now.  Here's a link to the preliminary outline, released today at a bipartisan press conference, and the clear indication is that both sides understand the need for high tech and STEM visas.  This resonates fairly closely with the commentary published recently in Pacific Business News about how this all connects with our local issues here in Hawaii.  Let's hope they get some traction on this.

Comment by John Robert Egan on January 20, 2013 at 7:54pm

Tony, I think the Startup Visa Bill, which was designed to facilitate visas for international tech entrepreneurs, is likely to be rolled into the more comprehensive immigration legislation due to come before Congress in the coming session.  It has broad bipartisan support, but has been opposed by the immigration hardliners each time it has been put forward in recent years. We'll see if there is enough momentum to get it through this time.  Thanks for your comments.

Comment by Tony Donnes on January 17, 2013 at 9:26am

John, thank you for your well-thought out article.  If "[c]ritical mass in the tech sector has been somewhat elusive for Hawaii" what can we do locally to correct that?  A question I've long had is: We know that a state can promote policies to the detriment of immigrants (i.e., Arizona), but is the opposite true: What can a state to to incentivize "beneficial" immigration?  Also, do we know what the status is of the Startup Visa Bill?


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