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Better pay, not H1-B increase, is answer to staffing shortage

A lot of iSeries professionals don't like the recent decision by Congress to increase H-1B visas allowing non-citizens to work in the United States.

A recent poll by Search400 asked iSeries professionals whether increasing H-1Bs - which allow highly skilled non-Americans to temporarily work in the country - would bring in more qualified AS/400 candidates. Fifty percent said they thought increasing H-1Bs is a "lousy idea." About 21 % of respondents said they thought it would help staffing and 18% said it wouldn't.

While some iSeries professionals dislike the increase in H-1Bs, their industry - and their jobs - doesn't draw strongly from foreign labor pools. Generally, H-1B workers end up in consulting and contracting positions with companies not specifically targeted at the iSeries market, said Nate Viall, a Des Moines, Iowa-based recruiter specializing in the iSeries industry.

In Viall's experience, the question of H-1Bs is less a matter of qualified workers and more what companies want to pay. "There is not a shortage of skilled IT people but there is a shortage of cheap IT people and that's the issue," Viall said.

While many companies pay H-1B employees comparable wages to natives, some pay anywhere from 20% to 30% less, Viall said. Most IT professionals either know someone or someone who knows someone who was replaced by a H-1B. They fear that lower cost replacements may drive their wages down.

Congress recently bumped H-1Bs to 195,000 over the next three fiscal years. The H1-B visa were established as part of the Immigration Act of 1990. They allow foreign professionals, with at least a bachelor's degree and experience in a "specialty" occupation to work in the United States for up to six years. Employers were bound to make sure their "temporary" employees had the similar working conditions and pay as their native colleagues.

Communication skills are one reason the iSeries industry isn't as dependent on H-1B as other segments of IT, Viall explained. "One of powers of the midrange environment is ease of programming. For example one line of RPG code can do the same thing as a page or two of COBOL," Viall said. "You often see a project team of one (person) who wears several more hats besides being the developer."

Under such a scenario, the developer has to discuss the project with the non-technical people in the company. "Communication skills are obviously very important in that situation," Viall said.

Douglas Streifling, the manager of information services for SierraPine Ltd,. has seen this first hand. "Communication in this business is a huge problem, even with people using the same native language; the problem is multiplied when working with people where English is a second language."

Echoing those sentiments, IT consultant Brian Shaw said "I've seen the skills of some of the foreign works - especially the highly touted Indian population. Their skill set is greatly diminished by their lack of communication ability and business knowledge."

By contrast, mainframe installations usually have a long, segmented chain of people between the coders and the non-technical people. Communication skills become less important in such a case, Viall said.

Several iSeries professionals interviewed by Search400 said America should put more energy into cultivating native programmers to lessen the IT's industry's reliance on non-citizen labor. Strict math requirements for computer science programs often prompt students to get business degrees, said Andrew Borts, an information systems project leader with Seta Corporation. Instead programs should offer anchored in real world applications.

"Learning how to program without a realistic purpose just doesn't seem like a fun thing to do for the rest of your life," Borts said.

For more information:

Study: H-1B crucial to economic growth

House, Senate Vote to Increase H-1B Visa Cap

Let us know what you think about the story, e-mail Ed Hurley, assistant news editor

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