In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 15, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 4

Op-ed: The H-1B Visa

Friday, December 15, 2017

Author: Samuel C. Florman

One Sunday evening this past August I turned on the TV and idly flipped from one station to the next. I landed on the start of an old favorite, 60 Minutes, and decided to see what this CBS stalwart was up to. I knew from experience that in summer the program often revisits topics reviewed earlier in the year, and sure enough that is what I encountered.

I found myself watching a reprise of an outrageous, infuriating story that had been featured in March. Headlined “You’re Fired,” it tells the tale of American tech workers who find themselves arbitrarily replaced by foreign personnel who have been brought to the United States on special visas and who work for substantially reduced wages. Adding to the anguish of the situation, the replaced workers—in order to receive termination pay—are forced to teach the basics of their jobs to the people who will replace them. How is it possible that, six months after the original telling, this deplorable situation—the misuse of the H-1B visa—persisted?

Two years ago there was an outburst of news stories when workers at Walt Disney World sued after losing their jobs to holders of H-1B visas. Following that scandal, The New York Times published a scathing editorial on June 15, 2015: “Workers Betrayed by Visa Loopholes.”

More recently, in March 2017, the past, present, and newly elected presidents of IEEE-USA, an organization that represents almost 200,000 American professional engineers, posted a letter online that tells “the real story of the H-1B visa”: “It is a tool used by companies to avoid hiring American workers, and avoid paying American wages.”[1]

It also happens that Donald Trump, while running for president, announced that he would “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program.” However, President Trump has taken no such action to improve the situation for American workers. An additional year’s worth of the specially arranged permits were issued, adding a president’s broken promise to the distasteful story.

Like many other people I’ve been shocked each time the headlines appear. Yet, frankly, like many other -people I lose track of the situation, assuming each time that the evil will be overcome.

After all, the H-1B visa program was enacted in 1990 with the best of intentions: Foreign workers with special technological talents were to be admitted to the United States for designated periods of time, providing help where high-level help was needed. There was no intent to undercut the market with cheap labor from abroad, but rather to provide additional talent where talent was in short supply. Unfortunately, as time went by, adept entrepreneurs with shadowy political connections managed to bring in groups of foreigners not to fill needs and make for a flourishing multinational enterprise, but rather to sneak in crews who agreed to work for below-market salaries, thus making money for unprincipled corporations and creating unanticipated hardship for American technical workers.

Yes, I had lost track of what was happening in the scandal department, yet I was conscious of growing concerns in the US engineering community about globalization, competition linked to increased technical competence in other nations.

In fact, I wrote an article titled “My Profession and My Nation: A Worrisome Confrontation,” which appeared in the summer 2005 issue of The Bent of Tau Beta Pi. The thrust of the article was that, although the acceleration of technological change had added elements of uncertainty to the career path of American engineers, these hardworking and resourceful folks were doing their best to adapt to the changing world as we moved into the new millennium. However, with the rapid increase of competition from foreign nations, the climate had turned ominously inhospitable. In 2003, for example, unemployment for electrical engineers rose precipitously to 7 percent. This, plus abundant anecdotal evidence, created widespread anxiety. I recognized in my article that certain responsible members of the NAE community were reluctant to take “a protectionist approach” in dealing with foreign competition. But my instinct was “to support the American engineering societies which seek, by legitimate political means, to protect their members.”

I suppose that this article was responsible for my being one of the ten NAE members selected to serve on an ad hoc committee appointed in 2006 to organize and conduct a public workshop on engineering offshoring and to prepare a summary report of the event. The workshop was held in 2007, and the proceedings, The Offshoring of Engineering, issued in early 2008.

The terminology surrounding the word “offshoring” can be confusing. When Boeing has its 787 airplanes manufactured in foreign lands, that is offshoring, sometimes called outsourcing. Bringing foreign workers to the United States under special visas is not the same thing. Yet both activities present American engineers with potential competition.

The NAE committee in which I participated looked at the H-1B visas only briefly and incidentally, noting pro and con sympathies on the issue. Actually, “pro and con” would have been an appropriate subtitle for the entire report, as it presents facts and statistics and arguments from all points of view. To wit: “Plausible -scenarios have been developed showing that offshoring either helps, is neutral, or hurts engineering in the United States. Only continued discussions and further studies will lead to a thorough understanding of the potential benefits and costs of offshoring” (p. 3). -Jeepers. How diplomatic is it possible to be?

I’ve often heard it said that NAE members represent an elite cadre, not adequately concerned about guarding their professional associates from foreign competition. Yet I found my fellow members of the Committee on Offshore Engineering—and the all-important project staff—able, committed, congenial, and fair-minded. And surely all members of the NAE seek “to provide nonpartisan, objective guidance for decision makers on pressing issues” (to quote one recent statement of purpose).

But that August evening when I saw the 60 Minutes reprise of an outrageous, infuriating story, I was reminded anew of the H-1B visa scandal, and surprised and very disappointed to find that the matter was still wide open and unresolved. What I’m trying to say, respectfully and earnestly, is that I’m similarly surprised and disappointed not to have found a serious discussion of the matter in the considered, expert, objective work of the National Academy of Engineering and its sister academies.

[1]  “Commentary: The H-1B Visa Problem as IEEE-USA Sees It,” IEEE Spectrum, March 6, 2017.

About the Author:Samuel C. Florman (NAE) is chair (ret.) of Kreisler Borg Florman General Construction and author of books about the relationship of engineering to the general culture.