Outraged over the number of H1-B visas granted to foreign workers, many U.S. IT professionals allege a powerful lobbying group is manipulating lawmakers with bogus employment statistics that benefit the major-league players it represents, such as Microsoft and Sun.
Critics liken The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) to tobacco lobbyists and the NRA, and say the visa program that allows companies to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations, such as computer programming, is robbing Americans of work and allowing large corporations to hire cheaper labor.
"I am out of a job because of H1-B visas," said Philip Hawkins, an independent consultant. "I have gone on job interviews and seen them [H1-B workers] already working on jobs I am trying to get. The big companies only want to raise the limits so that they can be sure of a cheap IT labor force."
There are IT workers, such as Prakash Shah, president of Sai Sales Corp. formerly of India and now a U.S. citizen, and Pete Meers, a database administrator based in Australia, who agree with the intent of the H1-B visa and say they should be increased. Meers notes, too, that H1-B visas are not as easily obtained as U.S. workers believe.
Still, in an informal sampling of users, U.S.-based IT workers favoring these visas were in the vast minority.
Earlier this month, the ITAA, which identifies Microsoft, Intel, IBM and Sun as the creme de la creme of their 500-plus members, released figures estimating the demand for IT workers in the next 12 months would increase substantially over 2001. The group is projecting the need for 1.1 million new IT workers in 2002. It also projects that nearly 600,000 of those positions will go unfilled.
The obvious problem, say many IT professionals, is that the numbers don't accurately reflect a significant slump in the U.S. economy. Now they are worried the ITAA's estimates will be used to help keep the temporary cap -- a high of 195,000 -- on visas. That cap was raised from 65,000 in 1998 and upped to 195,000 in 2000 because of concerns over predicted shortages in skilled labor.
But the ITAA defends its methodology for the report and says the numbers are statistically accurate. ITAA commissioned independent research firm Market Decisions to conduct telephone interviews with 532 hiring managers from IT and non-IT organizations. The survey was sponsored and developed by a dozen organizations, including Microsoft and Intel.
ITAA President Harris Miller said the report is independent and the research is valid. He stressed that the numbers are projections and have never been published as anything else but projections.
"You either accept the numbers or you don't," he said. "We publicize [the report] because it's real. We wouldn't make it up. If someone believes there's better research, then go and do it."
Miller also said his association's most recent numbers would not be used to lobby for the H1-B visa quotas next year.
But the ITAA's numbers have been off in the past. For instance, last year, the ITAA forecast 900,000 new positions for 2001 with 425,000 unfilled. In fact, according to national figures, the industry lost 500,000 jobs in the IT sector during 2001. In 2000, the ITAA forecast there would be 1.6 million new jobs in 2000. However, the number of actual new jobs was much less.
"What they're reporting in that survey is manager's intent," said Nate Viall a hiring specialist in the iSeries industry. "It's amusing that in the depths of recession, and in IT, that here comes this press release that says we're going to have this massive hiring attempt. They're straining their credibility. Simply look at their [past] projection versus what actually happened."
"I think [the ITAA report] is an attempt to up the [H1-B visa] quota," said Guy Rich, senior systems engineer at Integrated Digital Systems.
Rich said he knows of several colleagues who are having a hard time finding work because of H1-B visa workers, and said he experienced the challenge first hand. "I was bidding [on a contract] situation in Lincoln, Neb.," he said. "The hiring manager and I couldn't come to terms on a rate, and he flat out told me that he could get an East Indian to do the same job cheaper."
It's unlikely, however, that despite the movement to abolish the H1-B visa by groups such as the Programmers Guild, the cap will ever be reduced.
"They'll get to keep the cap in place," said Dr. Norman Matloff of the University of California at Davis, a severe critic of the ITAA and author of "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage," which he presented to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in April 1998.
"I think the ITAA is ignoring data," Matloff said. "They're a lobbying group and lobbyists are sharks, and to be a good shark you've got to do what good sharks do."
Matloff said while employers claim to be desperate, their actions prove otherwise, citing that employers hire only about 2% of their software applicants.
"They admit that they reject the vast majority of their applicants without even an interview," he said. "If employers were so desperate, they could not afford to be so picky. The high-tech industry wields enormous, unstoppable clout on Capitol Hill and in the White House, and even in academia."