The immigration debate as it relates to IT is a hotly contested one, especially in terms of the interplay of skills shortages, inadequate numbers of computer science graduates coming out of U.S. colleges and universities, and the continuing high demand for workers from other countries with H-1B visas. Who better to discuss this debate than a senior executive with a major software company who also happens to be affiliated with a top engineering school?
Enter Karen Tegan Padir, CTO of Bedford, Mass.-based Progress Software, and a trustee at her alma mater, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. I wrote a post last week about Padir’s advice for young women entering the IT profession, but in a recent interview she spoke with equal passion about the need for immigration reform and higher education’s role in solving the skills-shortage problem.
During our discussion, I noted that once again this year, the 65,000 H-1B visas available under the cap were snapped up within a week. I asked Padir to what she attributes the continuing high demand for H-1B workers, and to what extent the American educational system is a factor. I seem to have hit a nerve.
“This is one of my personal things that drives me absolutely crazy,” she said. “We have the best colleges and universities in the world, and everyone wants to come here to get educated. What do we do? We educate them, and then we send them home, so they can take everything they learned here back to their countries to compete with the United States. It’s just wrong.”
Padir said if those foreign students want to go back and create technology businesses in their home countries, that’s fine. “But the vast majority of them want to stay, and we need to be a country with a focus on innovation in all aspects of everything we do,” she said. “These young, entrepreneurial people want to be in our society, and we need to figure out a way to allow them to stay so they can contribute. That’s how our economy is going to grow.”
I asked Padir if she would advocate raising the H-1B visa cap, and she said she absolutely would.
“I’m not a political scientist, and I haven’t studied the economics of the whole thing. But I think in general, you have smart people who want to work here and contribute to our companies, so we should keep them here,” she said. “We need to at least go back to the way it was 20 years ago, when every student was able to work here for three years after college. Now, it’s 12 months. You graduate, then you have a practical training visa for 12 months. You have to find a job, and that employer has to apply for you to get the visa. Twelve months is not long enough for practical training from college.”
Padir said that as a manager in a technology company, she has found that employers have to jump through hoops to sponsor these foreign graduates, and that’s contributing to the skills shortage.
“The burden on the vendor is so high and costly, it’s just hard to do, and we’re losing out on good talent,” she said. “They’re going back to their home countries, and they’re innovating and creating companies that are competing with us, when that talent wanted to be here and stay here.”
I pointed out that those vendors tend to argue that they need H-1B workers because not enough people here are studying technology and pursuing those careers. I asked Padir what has to change so that universities can provide the homegrown talent that companies need, rather than having to rely so heavily on foreign talent. She said she doesn’t think it’s a university issue.
“I think we have the best schools in the world, and they produce highly capable students who can contribute to the work force,” she said. “The issue here is why native-born U.S. citizens aren’t pursuing those technology degrees. What do we need to do in earlier education to make sure that our public school systems are cranking out students who have the skill sets to handle the work of these engineering schools? How do we incentivize them and make it interesting so that they want to do that?”
I asked Padir how much Progress Software relies on H-1B workers, and where she sees that reliance heading. She said Progress is in “reset mode,” and needs to bring in talent to attract new companies and users to its application development platforms and its data connectivity platform.
“As we start our hiring, it’s going to become a bigger issue for us, absolutely,” she said. “We’re going to need the engineering talent to build these products. Are those people who have the talent that we need going to be U.S. citizens, or are they going to need visas? Right now, the vast majority of talent that’s coming out of schools needs visa assistance.”
I mentioned to Padir that I had recently spoken with Mark Myers, director of cloud service management at Datalink, about the changing roles of IT professionals with the emergence of cloud and related technologies. I noted that I had asked him how he would rate the job America’s colleges and universities are doing to prepare young people to fill these changing roles, and that this was his response:
“I don’t want to say, ‘bad.’ I think colleges are starting to realize some of this. Colleges are doing a good job of training the technical skills. They’re just starting to understand that they need to teach these kids how to think and approach the use of all this technology. Colleges are still learning that.”
I asked Padir if she thought that was a fair assessment, and she said it was absolutely fair.
“WPI knew that a long time ago, when they started the WPI Plan, where you come into school and you have three major projects that you have to do,” she said. “It’s not just about doing the work for the projects, but also the presentation of the end result. They were just so smart early on in combining the disciplines.”
Padir also mentioned the Great Problems Seminar for freshman at WPI, a non-required, project-based program in which students work in teams on ways to “feed the world, power the world, and heal the world.”
“It’s a different approach to learning, with that practical application,” Padir said. “The most innovative people, and the ones who will be most successful in their careers and in helping this country become a great technology country again, are the ones who understand the bigger picture, and how the different pieces fit together. At WPI, that is ingrained in you from day one.”