In San Francisco a few years ago, my co-workers and I built a multi-million-dollar technology business without the traditional venture capital required to hire Silicon Valley’s “best and brightest.” With little money raised, we were forced to go in another direction.
We hired interns and displaced workers from other industries, ambitious and scrappy types who had not gotten the chance to shine. Then we trained them on the job and gave them increasing decision-making authority.
The results were inspiring: Emerge Digital Group revenue accelerated greatly, but equally dramatic was the transformation of workers into cutting-edge digital advertising professionals in one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. My “aha” moment came when Google and Facebook poached our employees. Helping almost anyone get a job and succeed in technology, especially if they wanted to, I realized, was possible.
My tech brethren, or the ones who run the biggest companies there at least, disagree. Increasing the number of H1B visas is their common position. Those are the federal waivers handed out to highly trained workers in fields such as technology who don’t plan to immigrate here. Already, Washington hands out 65,000 of these visas to specialist workers and another 20,000 to graduate students every year. Now Silicon Valley heavyweights are lobbying Washington for even more waivers.
In a letter dated November 14, a lobbying group whose members included Twitter, Netflix, Facebook, and Google urged President-elect Donald Trump to increase the number. “The U.S. immigration system must allow more high-skilled graduates and workers to stay in the United States and contribute to our economy,” wrote Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association. Last week, tech big shots like Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet CEO Larry Page and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella met with Trump in New York. You can bet the pitch was similar.
Their economic argument, that the industry suffers from a shortage of workers, is false and misleading. Big tech companies take advantage of the H1B program to drive their bottom line. The law permits companies to lay off their own employees in favor of foreign workers doing the work in the states or overseas. Think about that. The law does more than look the other way at firms that hire foreign workers instead of American citizens; it allows companies to ditch their own employees so they can hire foreign nationals. Remember the recent story about laid-off Disney workers who were forced to train their foreign replacements?
Not surprisingly, tech firms use the provision to their advantage. In late 2014, Microsoft laid off 21,000 workers. In September 2015, Hewlett Packard announced it was cutting 25,000 to 30,000 workers. That was on top of the 55,000 jobs it slashed the year before.
Another problem with the H1B program is the law rewards companies for outsourcing their training programs. About half, or 40,000 of the visas handed out each year, don’t go to firms such as Microsoft, Apple or Facebook, the companies we think about when we hear H1B. They go to professional offshore outsourcing firms such as Cognizant, which received 9,000 H1B’s last year.
Outsourcing firms operate an almost pyramid-like system: they bring foreign nationals to the United States, who then learn the jobs of American citizens. Then these foreign workers return home overseas. Many times, the best workers in India arrive in a tech-friendly city such as Seattle, learn the ins and outs of their host company, fly back to the subcontinent to run a call center or IT department, and train their workers with the skills they learned in the United States.
To be sure, this is capitalism at work, something I support as an entrepreneur. But it has gone too far. Allowing companies to outsource their training programs and lay off their own employees in favor of keeping cheap foreign labor undermines our visa program.
As a result, the H1B program does not foster or give priority to American job growth over the long run. Creating the industries of tomorrow, ensuring the next “big idea” happens here, creating a steady pipeline of future employment for U.S. workers each falls by the wayside.
Instead of expanding the H1B visa program, let’s reform it. Instead of outsourcing job creation, let’s place a premium on creating jobs here at home over the long run. Instead of training foreign workers to work as call center operators, IT professionals, and Q&A workers, let’s train American workers for needed professional and technical jobs.
We can do this. I did already, and with a little courage and imagination, Washington could spread these benefits to the nation as a whole.
Chase Norlin is the CEO of Transmosis, an organization founded by Silicon Valley Technology Entrepreneurs, dedicated to the research and application of technology to strengthen the American workforce. Norlin was the founder and CEO of Emerge Digital Group, named the eighth fastest-growing company in America and the No. 1 fastest-growing company in Silicon Valley, based on revenue growth, by Inc. Magazine.