There’s probably no more hotly contested issue in the IT realm than the legitimacy of the H-1B visa program, and the concomitant debate over whether there is a shortage of workers in the United States who have the technology skills that companies need. There are very smart, passionate people on both sides of the debate, so no matter which side you come down on, intelligent, dedicated people will conclude that you have no idea what you’re talking about. And a fringe element in both camps will publicly vilify you for what is perceived as ignorance, agenda advancement, or a mix of the two.
Consequently, there are a lot of people who refuse to take a public stand on the issue. I routinely raise the H-1B question when I interview IT executives, and more than you might imagine lack the courage to voice their opinion on the record. Kathleen Brush isn’t one of them.
Brush is the corporate turnaround executive I wrote about last week in my post, “Cleaning Up IT Management Messes: Dirty Work, But Somebody Has to Do It.” She has worked for a lot of IT companies, and has a Ph.D. in management and international studies, so I figured it would be worth a shot to ask the H-1B question. “Where do you come down on the H-1B visa debate?” I asked. “Should the cap be raised because we need more H-1B workers? Is the program robbing qualified Americans of their jobs? Where does the truth lie, in your view?” Brush didn’t hesitate:
We need to raise the cap on the H-1B visas. I don’t think Americans are being robbed of jobs. I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying the graduation rates, and I have a lot of statistics on it. When you look at the people who are graduating with STEM degrees, in graduate school it’s something like 60 percent are foreign; most of them are Asian. When you look at the shortages of engineers in the United States, the shortage of IT workers, you can tie that back to which ethnicities study which types of subjects. Without question, it’s the Asians. It’s not all Asians, but it’s a lot of them—that includes the Chinese and the Indians, which is the vast majority. Those are the ethnic groups that are most likely to study for any type of STEM degree. There has been a marked trend in—let’s call them the European Americans—moving away from studying the STEM programs. Latin Americans and African Americans have never really had strong percentages studying in the STEM programs. So we’ve got a bit of a challenge here. For some reason, we have made it more attractive for students to study political science or sociology or other non-STEM fields. And that’s a problem.
One of the other reasons that I would like the H-1B pool to be increased is because that’s the pool that’s pulled from for who’s going to get green cards. And we need more [U.S. residents] with STEM degrees. So I want those H-1B visas to go to people who have the skills that we need, and then I want to pull from that group for the new Americans. That makes economic sense to me. It may not make any other sense, but to me it makes economic sense, completely.
“So you don’t buy the arguments of people like Dr. Norm Matloff of the University of California at Davis, who contents that H-1B workers are displacing older American IT workers, and others who say the H-1B program brings in low-wage workers who take U.S. jobs?” I asked. She said she does not:
I’ve had a lot of H-1B visa folks working for me. They made the same salaries as everyone else. We didn’t pay them any less. I’m one of these people who knows I’m not supposed to apply for a visa if I’ve got an American who can do the job. I don’t care if the person is young, old, green, or orange. If they were American and they could do the job, they got the job before I would ever consider an H-1B visa holder. There may be some people cheating the system, but I never ran across them. Everyone that I knew was pretty in tune to that. I never met an HR director who wasn’t fully aware of what the requirements were.
I noted that some of the big Indian IT services providers like Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services have enjoyed a lot of success in this country, so I asked Brush whether there are any leadership qualities that those companies tend to demonstrate that the leaders in U.S. IT companies would do well to emulate. She said nothing came to mind:
I’ve worked with Wipro and Infosys, but I don’t know that I noticed anything. It was sort of nice that they met the requirements for a job—they were given specs, and they simply met the specs, without providing any excuses as to why they were going to be delayed. I think that’s more the nature of the beast, being an outsourcing firm. But I didn’t notice that there were any management techniques that I wanted to borrow.
Finally, I asked Brush whether there are any management techniques that are prevalent in the United States that these Indian outsourcing companies would do well to emulate. Quite a bit came to mind:
One of the things we do in the United States, and I think it’s because we have to, is there’s more attention given to different ways to motivate employees. I’m pretty sure I’m right here, that most Indian workers, and I believe Chinese workers as well, they’re motivated by their paychecks. Their paychecks can provide them with a lot of things they’ve never had before. In the United States, we sort of take for granted a car, and nice accommodations, etc. In developing countries like India, people are more motivated to get those things. If you look at Maslow, they’re more motivated towards those lower-order needs, whereas in the U.S. it’s the higher order. But the fact is, once that Indian worker has that car and nice accommodations, they too can be motivated to produce quite a bit more by giving attention to those other things, those less-tangible things, such as appealing to their desire to achieve, to be somebody. One of the things that you find in India and China is they don’t have the system we have in the United States, which is pretty darn close to being egalitarian-oriented in terms of the person who’s going to get the plum project, or a nice promotion, is going to be the person who earned it. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Punjab or Hyderabad—it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what family they came from. The only thing that matters is their performance. I think that can be very motivational.