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High-tech companies that have trouble luring computer engineers and programmers may soon fish in a deeper pool, thanks to Congress' move to increase the number of H-1B visas available to skilled workers from foreign countries. Though foreign-born workers frequently graduate from U.S. colleges, earning bachelor's degrees or higher, they must immediately return to their home countries, even if U.S. companies make them great job offers.
The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act of 2000 (S.2045), signed into law in October, bumps up the H-1B level to 195,000 visas to be issued in each of the fiscal years 2001, 2002 and 2003. The levels otherwise would have been 107,500 in 2001 and 65,000 in 2002 and 2003. H-1B visas go to foreign workers in "specialty" professions, defined as requiring "a theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge." The visas are good for three years and can be renewed for another three.
During Senate and House hearings, employers from the computer industry testified to the value of H-1B workers. Julie Holdren, president and CEO of Olympus Group Inc. in Alexandria, Virginia, which employs almost 100 people, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1999 that her company had at least 30 job openings that she'd been unable to fill for more than 120 days. At the time Holdren testified, five of her employees were H-1B recipients. "Without the ability to hire a few key talented people from overseas," she says, "I wouldn't be able to handle the current workload."
Rep. David Dreier (R-CA) says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the U.S. economy will need an average of 95,000 new computer scientists, engineers, systems analysts and computer programmers per year until 2005. The number of U.S. citizens with the appropriate expertise won't be anywhere near that number. Dreier and others admit a long-term challenge is to get more Americans interested in math and science. In the meantime, Dreier says, "we must at least capitalize on the education being provided to foreign nationals in the United States by enabling U.S. companies to hire these graduates."
Time Warner-AOL merger concerns Web companies: Some of the same Internet companies that agitated for an increase in H-1B visas were among those clamoring for the Federal Trade Commission to insist on "open access" protections as part of approval of the Time Warner-AOL merger. The issue here is whether Time Warner and AOL will be forced to allow Internet content providers access to Time Warner's Road Runner cable broadband service and AOL's instant messaging service. Margaret Heffernan, president and CEO of iCAST, an Internet entertainment company in Wo-burn, Massachusetts, told the House subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection that AOL has a stranglehold on the instant messaging market and that the merger will make it worse.
Executive order on minority business: In response to a request from the minority business task force of the Congressional Black Caucus, President Clinton issued an executive order aimed at encouraging federal contracting agencies to use more minority- and woman-owned firms. The steps Clinton ordered were fairly typical federal boilerplate, such as "aggressively using the 8(a) program and statutory price credit programs to bring more disadvantaged businesses into the federal procurement process." The order was well received by Rep. Albert Wynn (D-MD), the task-force chairman. "I applaud the president's decision to direct all government departments and agencies to take positive measures to ensure the inclusion of small and disadvantaged businesses in the federal contracting process," says Wynn. "It's the federal government's responsibility to practice what it preaches regarding affirmative action and to set an example for small-business utilization."
Stephen Barlas is a freelance business reporter who covers the Washington beat for 15 magazines.