Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, believes passionately that the United States needs more skilled foreign workers. He has long advocated increasing the number of so-called H-1B visas, which allow those workers to come to the U.S. for several years and, in many cases, work for lower wages than current employees. Schmidt is frustrated that Congress hasn't done as he and other tech moguls want.
"In the long list of stupid policies of the U.S. government, I think our attitude toward immigration has got to be near the top," Schmidt said during a recent appearance at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Everyone actually agrees that there should be more H-1B visas in order to create more tech, more science, more analytical jobs. Everyone agrees, in both parties."
The Eric Schmidt pleading for more foreign workers is the same Eric Schmidt who boasts of turning away thousands upon thousands of job seekers who apply for a few prized positions at Google. For example, at an appearance in Cleveland last October to promote his book, "How Google Works," Schmidt explained that his company receives at least 1,000 applications for every job opening. "The good news is that we have computers to do the initial vetting," Schmidt explained, according to an account in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Other tech leaders join Schmidt in calling for more foreign workers. Some companies are actually lobbying for more H-1Bs and laying off American staff at the same time. For example, last year Microsoft announced the layoff of 18,000 people at the very moment it was pushing Congress for more guest worker visas.
Given all that, there's not quite the unanimous agreement on the need for more foreign workers that Schmidt claims. At a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a number of experts testified that the H-1B program, so sought-after by CEOs, is being abused to harm American workers.
Ron Hira, a Howard University professor and author of the book "Outsourcing America," told the story of Southern California Edison, which recently got rid of 500 IT employees and replaced them with a smaller force of lower-paid workers brought in from overseas through the H-1B program. The original employees were making an average of about $110,000 a year, Hira testified; the replacements were brought to Southern California Edison by outsourcing firms that pay an average of between $65,000 and $75,000.
"To add insult to injury," Hira said, "SCE forced its American workers to train their H-1B replacements as a condition of receiving their severance packages."
Hira testified that such situations are not unusual. And on the larger issue of whether there is, as many tech executives claim, a critical shortage of labor in what are called the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- another professor, Hal Salzman of Rutgers, testified that the shortage simply does not exist.
"The U.S. supply of top-performing graduates is large and far exceeds the hiring needs of the STEM industries, with only one of every two STEM graduates finding a STEM job," Salzman testified. "The guest worker supply is very large (and) it is highly concentrated in the IT industry, leading to both stagnant wages and job insecurity."
The hearing also featured Jay Palmer, a former Infosys project manager who blew the whistle on a case in which the big outsourcing firm paid $34 million in fines for worker visa violations. "I watched this on a daily basis," Palmer told the Judiciary Committee. "I sat in the offices in meetings with companies that displaced American workers only because the Americans who had been there 15 or 20 years were being paid too much money."
So not everyone agrees with Schmidt on the need for more H-1B workers. Certainly not the laid-off IT employees at Southern California Edison. And not the workers reportedly displaced by similar practices at Disney, Harley Davidson, Cargill, Pfizer and other companies. Who knows? Maybe some of those workers have been among the 1,000-plus who apply for every Google opening.
To hear the witnesses before the Senate Judiciary Committee tell it, Congress needs to act -- not to increase the number of H-1Bs but to close the loopholes that allow them to be so badly abused at such a cost to American workers. "Congress and multiple administrations have inadvertently created a highly lucrative business model of bringing in cheaper H-1B workers to substitute for Americans," Hira told the committee. "Simply put, the H-1B program has become a cheap labor program."