Strong opinions, weakly held

Why engineers shouldn’t whine about H-1B Visas

We don’t see it much lately because the job market for software engineers is so robust right now, but there’s a real fear among engineers that H-1 B Visa holders are coming to take our jobs or at least lower our compensation. I thought it was worth highlighting this argument that the broad benefits outweigh the potential harms by a large degree:

Consider the interests of every single American who isn’t a skilled engineer. The vast majority of private sector workers in the United States are engaged in local service provision. Maybe we’re in high status local service providing professions (doctors, architects) or maybe we’re in low status ones (retail clerks, maids) but it’s what American do. And clearly everyone involved in local service provision benefits if a new skilled worker earning an above-average salary moves to town.

Against that you weigh the possible harm to the software engineers who already here. I think it’s fair to say that in terms of current and future employment prospects, we have it easier than just about anybody.


  1. [Wish I were joking] We’re Americans; we don’t think about the common good, just ourselves.

    [Serious] That software is going to be written somewhere regardless. Having more software engineers come to the US to do it beats the hell out of shipping the jobs offshore, which is what will happen if supply of labor in the US can’t meet demand.

  2. I’m curious that you say there is a real fear among software engineers about this. Maybe I’m just in different circles or it just hasn’t come up, but I’ve never heard anyone I personally know mention a fear of H-1B Visa holders taking software engineering jobs. In fact, I’ve often heard/read the opposite, that we need more of them.

    Can you provide any further background on why you think this is a real fear?

  3. It waxes and wanes. Right around the dot com crash there was a lot of outcry about it. Then we went through a phase where many people were afraid their job would be moved offshore entirely. For example, in 2005, Chad Fowler wrote a book called My Job Went to India. Of more recent vintage, we have Robert Cringely arguing that the goal of employers is to use H1-B visas to reduce wages last fall.

  4. My experience with H1-B hires has been that they are almost always paid below average wages and locked in to the hiring company for years. They are mostly immobile, because they fear the company will get rid of them and their H1-B if they do anything, resulting in being sent back to their home country. As soon as they have gotten to where they could get a green card or whatever, they have all moved on almost instantly.

    There seem to be enough tech job openings that the current rate of H1-B permits is not enough to effect the market much, but if the amount of H1-Bs was high enough to be actual replacement workers and not accretive to the overall job market, things would be worse.

    Despite how well tech workers are compensated compared to the average U.S. citizen, the divide in wealth between any workers and the wealthy (company owners seeking H1-Bs) is still far larger.

    I suspect removing the H1-B visa and replacing it with a skilled worker visa the individual would own would be a much more humane and sane thing to do. Then the foreign worker would be able to operate in the job pool exactly the same as a native born worker, and could not be underpaid simply because they have no other options, and small companies that don’t want the hassle of sponsoring an H1-B could hire them.

    I suspect many of the H1-B supporters would be opposed to such a thing, though.

  5. Yeah, I would strongly prefer a Visa program that is much less restrictive than H1-B.

  6. Quillian is correct. I just ended a 6-month contract with a very large multinational company that has entire FLOORS full of H1-B visa engineers. Almost every single one of them fears daily of being laid off and sent back to their home country.

    At my new job (a small French-based telecom company), I am working daily with remote teams of engineers in Paris, Tunisia, Bucharest and Beijing. It would be very, very difficult to obtain H1-B visas for every one of these people and relocate them to the U.S. — we opt instead to fly our project managers and technical managers to each office location, and rely heavily on email, group chat and Skype.

  7. No American should ever fear someone coming to the US to work hard and make a better life for their family. We should be afraid of our short sightedness that can send jobs permanently overseas.

  8. “the goal of employers is to use H1-B visas to reduce wages last fall”

    Quite obviously that is the goal of employers. After all, if they wanted to hire more high-quality software engineers they could just offer more money. I don’t think there’s a lack of decent engineers provided you offer enough money. Or they could screen for applicants with applicable talent and train them in programming. The goal of the H1-B program is to increase the supply of engineers and thereby reduce the scarcity premium of engineers.

    The question of whether that is socially beneficial overall is a different one. It probably is. Highly-skilled workers are expensive to train and produce a lot of surplus over their working lifetime. The US workforce is unbalanced in favor of low-skill workers and one way to remedy that is to bring in more skilled workers. Also, there’s a lot of additional software engineering work that can usefully be done when the price of engineering labor is lower.

    But let’s not pretend this is some other process. Engineers are a scarce resource, like all skilled labor, and their wages are determined by a market mechanism. Increasing the supply decreases the market rate. End of story. Most professions enact significant barriers to entry for foreign skilled workers for just this reason, probably to the overall detriment of the American economy, although I’d like to see the numbers.

    So that’s that side. The problem with the H1-B program is that it is a system of indentured servitude unbecoming of a country that lays claim to being the world’s foremost champion of freedom. I know whereof I speak since as you know I was an H1-B holder myself. It is brutal. And some employers make it more brutal with implicit threats of firing and deportation. So yes, I think people can have reasonable objections to this program on the basis that while bringing in more skilled workers is fine, bringing them in on a program of only semi-voluntary employment that sharply limits their ability to negotiate a fair wage or switch jobs is not so fine. And that is the H1-B program.

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