While we are again showing how not to have the right conversation about foreign-born high-tech workers (people who come into this country on the H-1B visa), the rest of the developed world is waking up to the fact that America's cherry-picking of international tech talent amounts to an enormous competitive advantage, one that, if left unchallenged, could extend U.S. dominance in information technology indefinitely.
Our competitors are doing something about it. Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, among others, have already entered or are preparing to enter the sweepstakes for high-tech workers. This month, after a quarter-century of near-abstinence on recruiting foreign workers, Germany indicated that it would tap the global talent pool to meet the labor needs of its information and communications sectors. Chancellor Schroeder and key members of his cabinet pledged to support offering term-limited employment to as many as 30,000 foreign high-tech workers recruited from outside the European Union. This despite unemployment rates that continue to hover at about 10 percent and opposition by the federal labor minister, who argues that many of the unemployed could be retrained to do the jobs that have been going begging. Sound familiar?
Similarly, Canada is about to liberalize access to high-tech workers, without most of the regulatory obstacles placed on U.S. employers in 1998. Australia has made such a large allocation of high-end temporary visas to its business community that firms cannot fill all the slots. And the UK has experienced such exceptional growth in the temporary immigration of highly qualified foreigners that it is considering opening up the front door of its permanent immigration system to such workers and their families.
What is going on? Three interrelated explanations come readily to mind. First, in the information age, the demand for what Robert Reich has called "knowledge workers," far outpaces the supply of such workers--partly because the education and training systems of the developed world have been slow in adapting to the new economy. Simultaneously, a number of countries are producing very well-trained technical graduates at least in part "for export" (India) or simply have temporary surpluses of such workers because of severe market and other failures (Russia or, until recently, Ireland).
Second, at the cutting edge of the information revolution, process-heavy training programs, such as Germany's apprenticeship system, may now ill-serve many of their graduates. Such programs have been producing workers well-suited to the capital goods-producing sectors. But as those industries seek more favorable tax and regulatory environments abroad, the workers they leave behind are not prepared to compete in post-industrial economies that value flexibility and lifelong learning seemingly above all else. Hence the paradox of high unemployment (often among otherwise well-trained and educated people) coexisting with severe shortfalls of information workers.
Third, the "just-in-time" approach to getting certain types of talented foreign workers, long practiced by the United States, is now spreading--just as it did with the management of inventories in the manufacturing sector a decade or so ago.
These new realities suggest that the United States do three things differently on H-1Bs. First, we should keep our eyes fixed on what is best for all of us by using the political energy of the issue to coax business into improving working conditions for all, while inviting it to constantly reevaluate its worker needs and the place of foreigners in them. In the process, we should focus on developing visa requirements that are clear and consistent with the visa's intent, procedures that are completely transparent and outcomes that are predictable and timely.
Second, if high-end temporary visa classes are drawn carefully and reviewed periodically and impartially, numerical limits should become nearly irrelevant. Numerical limits, because they've become the equivalent of waving a cape in front of a bull, defer the more meaningful conversations about how best to use immigration to strengthen our competitiveness and how best to engage our training and educational institutions in that common effort. And they have the perverse effect of fueling a feeding frenzy as firms apply for visas early in the fiscal year so as to protect themselves from the likely visa shortfall later on--thus virtually guaranteeing that the shortfall will occur.
Finally, we should adjust our thinking--and our permanent immigration system--to the reality that competition for talented foreigners will become much more intense. In such an environment, the "total package" a firm offers may well be the deciding factor in which offer a worker accepts. Primarily, that should mean that we must continue to offer the best environment for intellectual and business entrepreneurship. But a permanent visa for those who prove themselves and play by the rules is also likely to become an essential part of that package--and we should be able to accommodate that.
The writer is co-director of the International Migration Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.