The US high-technology industry is renewing its call to expand a visa programme for skilled workers after a quota for the upcoming fiscal year was filled in a single day.
Launched in 1990, the H-1B visa programme allows foreign scientists, engineers and technologists to be employed for up to six years in the United States, at the end of which they must obtain permanent residency or return home. About half come from India.
The H-1B visa programme providing 65,000 visas was opened and closed on April 2 after US authorities said they had received some 150,000 applications.
American technology companies have long argued the visa limit is too low, and complained that the meeting of the quota so quickly highlights a need for urgent reforms.
"America must have access to the world's best talent if we are to compete in the global economy," said Phil Bond, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade association.
"Upon its return, Congress should move quickly to raise the cap and make it more responsive to market demand."
Because of the flood of applications this year, the visas for the fiscal year starting October 1 will be given in a random selection process, and employers who fail to get visas for their prospective employees will have to apply next April for the fiscal year starting in October 2008.
Last month, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates cited a "terrible shortfall" in highly skilled workers for US technology firms.
"Unfortunately, America's immigration policies are driving away the world's best and brightest precisely when we need them most," Gates told lawmakers.
Gates said the limit of 65,000 annual visas "is arbitrarily set and bears no relation to US industry's demand for skilled professionals."
But critics of the programme say few companies use it for the stated purpose of attracting the "best and brightest."
Ron Hira, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who specializes in engineering workforce issues and technology policy, said there are loopholes in the visa process that make it hard to know if there is indeed a shortage.
"Companies don't have to look for US workers first, and in fact could displace American workers with H-1Bs," he said in an interview.
Hira said the median wage for H-1B visa holders is 50,000 dollars -- "so it's not the 100,000-dollar-a-year software engineer some people talk about."
Although companies are required to pay a "prevailing wage," Hira said this is "not necessarily a market wage, and in fact most will get lower wages than an equally qualified US worker."
In other cases, Hira said firms use the visas to bring in workers from India or elsewhere for a short period to train them for outsourcing the work at a later date. This, he said, flies in the face of the argument that the program keeps jobs in America.
"There is no indication in the labor market there is a shortage" of high-tech workers, Hira said. "If there was a shortage you would see wages driven up and that's not the case.
Democratic senator Dick Durbin and his Republican colleague Chuck Grassley have introduced legislation aimed at tightening the standards for visa programs "to give priority to American workers and crack down on unscrupulous employers who deprive qualified Americans of high-skill jobs," according to a joint statement.
The Durbin-Grassley bill would require that jobs be advertised for 30 days before an employer may submit an H-1B application and would ban the posting of a job as available only for H-1B visa holders.
The measure also would prohibit employers from hiring H-1B employees who are then outsourced to other companies and would bar companies from new visas if more than 50 percent of their employees are H-1B visa holders.
John Challenger, chief executive at consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, said the labour shortage is acute, with fewer than two percent of people with college diplomas unemployed.
"In an information economy the fuel is not oil, the fuel for the next 50 years is brain power, so in some way there is always a shortage," Challenger said.
"If we can be the place that attracts the brainpower of the world it's going to help our economy grow."
Challenger said one way to address the political realities would be to set up a fee or auction system for skilled workers seeking to come to the United States instead of setting an arbitrary limit. This would allow market forces to determine the number of visas and provide more revenues to the government.
"We could use some of that revenue to provide educational support programs in our country and to upgrade our skill base," he said.