An open letter: Don’t cut the H-1B visa program — expand it

February 27, 2017 | Uniphy Health
Many news outlets are reporting that one of the new presidential administration’s upcoming executive orders will be a significant overhaul of work visas, including the H-1B program, which is the primary means for technology firms to employ skilled foreign technologists.

This program is critical to the technology industry due to the insufficient pool of appropriately skilled tech talent in the U.S. In my view, rather than cut the program, the administration should redesign how the H-1B system works, so it is designed to both address the gap in current technology talent and create incentives for companies to employ more U.S. workers.

While the administration’s precise plans to revise H-1B are unclear, it is unarguable that cutting the number of visas would be bad for the tech sector, bad for small businesses like mine and bad for the U.S. economy. In fact, it could result in more technology jobs being moved offshore out of necessity.

My small software firm, Uniphy Health, is a case in point. We make mobile communications applications for health care. We are growing fast and viewed as an emerging leader in our field. Our ability to attract and retain top talent is the lifeblood of our business.

When we started the firm in 2012, we made a strategic decision to locate our offices at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s incubator, the Enterprise Development Center. The primary reason for doing this was access to talent; specifically, the thousands of bright and highly educated computer science graduates studying at NJIT. Many of these are foreign nationals who are investing in a technical education.

My firm instituted what we call the “talent funnel.” Through an NJIT work-study program, foreign graduate students can work for us part-time in application development, technical support and analytics roles. As they complete their graduate degrees, we offer the brightest of these students full-time employment as part of the STEM Occupational Practical Training Program. These employees receive pay commensurate with that of their U.S. colleagues. OPT allows them to work in the country for close to three years, during which we apply for an H-1B visa for them.

The problem for us and for hundreds of other companies is that there are three applicants for each of the available 85,000 H-1B visas under the current quota. That is, we are, collectively, trying to hire a quarter of a million employees, but the program allows for only a third that many. And cutting the quota will obviously make the imbalance even worse. Perversely, this could work against the administration’s own objective of keeping jobs in America. The exact opposite could happen — in fact, it already has, to us.

Over the last two years, my firm was unable to get H-1B visas for two of our team members. Thus, they had little choice but to return to India and set up shop as independent consultants. They now work for us full-time as overseas contractors.

We would much rather have them work for us in New Jersey, as it is much more productive. So, for want of a few H-1B visas, the U.S. and New Jersey lose out on a pool of taxpayers, who could be contributing to the creation of value in a U.S. company.

Unquestionably, the H-1B program needs to be redesigned, but how can that be done so it both expands the talent pool of technology talent with qualified candidates from overseas andincreases the talent pool of U.S. workers?

  1. Tie the H-1B program to U.S. job creation. Right now, H-1B visas are distributed using a lottery system. It’s a poor way to manage the program, and it is flooded by large companies applying in bulk. Instead, make it merit-based; specifically, tie it to the creation of jobs for U.S. workers. Require that, for every new foreign worker on an H-1B visa, the applying company must also create one new U.S. job with similar skills. This could include training current employees in new skills. This will compel companies to invest in programs to train U.S. workers in technical skills.
  2. Remove the limit on H-1B visas. Rather than restrict H-1B visas, expand the program. It is critical to growing the vital U.S. technology sector. If the hiring company has to match jobs created through H-1B program, this will create 500,000 jobs (250,000 H-1B visa applicants plus 250,000 newly-created matching jobs).
  3. Ensure fair pay. The H-1B program should not be an excuse to pay someone less than his or her U.S. citizen peers. At our firm, we pay based on skills, experience and merit, with no distinction between citizens and noncitizens. The H-1B program should be revised to guarantee that employees on H-1B visas are paid commensurately with their American counterparts at the same firm.
  4. Penalize companies that use the H-1B program to ship jobs offshore. According to the New York Times, some firms use the H-1B program to replace skilled U.S. workers with lower-paid foreign workers, then use that as a stepping stone to moving those jobs offshore. As a disincentive, the program could penalize firms that do this by making them ineligible to apply for H-1B visas for a given period of time.

These measures will help ensure that firms don’t use the H-1B program as a way to import cheap labor into the U.S., but ensure that it is a way to import sorely needed talent that can support our businesses, help create new jobs and make sure the most talented workers in the world are working in America.

By Adam Turinas, co-founder and CEO, Uniphy Health, Published in NJBiz February 22, 2017 at 3:06 PM