Quora Question: Do H1-B Visa Workers Steal U.S. Jobs?

Lakshminarayana Ganti, 33, who has been denied a U.S. visa, checks his visa status online daily. Thomas Haugersveen / Agence VU for Newsweek

Quora Questions are part of a partnership between Newsweek and Quora, through which we'll be posting relevant and interesting answers from Quora contributors throughout the week. Read more about the partnership here. Answer from Mathew Lodge, San Francisco tech executive, former H-1B and green card holder:

Are H-1B visa workers really stealing U.S. jobs? Yes and no. Let's break this down.

There is no fixed number of jobs, so there is no "stealing." Firstly, there's the framing "stealing jobs," as if there is some fixed number of jobs in the U.S. instead of an economy that can expand or contract. There is no "zero sum" game: if a company hires a U.S. engineer and she helps her company build a successful new product, they will need to hire more engineers, sales people, marketers, finance people, support staff etc. Hiring her helped to create new jobs.

Secondly, H-1B salary data shows that there are essentially two kinds of H-1B employer: large scale "body shops" at one end (e.g. Infosys and Tata), and highly-skilled product and service companies at the other (e.g. Netflix and clinics like the Eastern Maine Medical Center). The charge is that the "body shoppers" use the H1-B system to import "Level 1" employees to perform IT staffing tasks more cheaply. The US government has reached settlements with both Infosys and Tata for allegedly abusing the system (both companies did not admit wrongdoing in the settlements).

Per the Los Angeles Times:

In fiscal 2015, […] 41% of the jobs approved by the government for H-1B visas were at the lowest skill levels for the jobs, which applies to "beginning level employees who have only a basic understanding of the occupation [and] perform routine tasks," such as those done under "internships." Those workers typically are paid 40% below the average wage. Even better, from the employer's standpoint, is that the workers know that their visas are tied to their employment, which makes them especially submissive employees.

Contrast this with the highest paying H-1B employers, which we know thanks to the H-1B labor certification applications being public record, and websites like the mysterious H1B Visa Salary Database 2016 which aggregates 2 million H-1B labor condition applications. The top 10 by average salary are all medical services providers:

Netflix is the highest ranking tech H-1B employer in that list, coming in at #15 with an average salary of $187,393.

Why are some jobs being targeted for body shopping?

So the "body shops" seem to be in the big bad job-stealing business, right? Not so fast. Here's a quote from that LA Times story about Southern California Edison (SCE) replacing staff with Indian H-1Bs from Infosys and Tata:

The workers I interviewed are in their 50s or 60s and have spent decades serving as loyal Edison employees.

They're not the sort of uniquely creative engineering aces that high-tech companies say they need H-1B visas to hire from abroad, or foreign students with master's degrees or doctorates from U.S. universities who also can be employed under the H-1B program. They're experienced systems analysts and technicians for whom these jobs have been stairways from the working class to five- or six-figure middle-class incomes. Many got their training at technical institutes or from Edison itself.

These employees were being replaced by Infosys and Tata junior staff with a bachelor's degree and job training. Think about that. If the job you have spent decades doing can (genuinely) now be done by a recent graduate with some training, then your job is at risk regardless of the H-1B program.

If we perform a thought experiment where we shut off the H-1B program, let's think the SCE situation through. SCE is a regulated monopoly. Regulated monopolies have only two ways of increasing profit margins: rate increases, which are highly regulated and politicized, and cost cutting (greater efficiency). SCE is always going to be on the lookout for cost savings, so without H-1Bs it might just decide to offshore those systems analysts and technician roles to India or China. Or hire and train its own recent graduates like it used to do — remember, "Many got their training at technical institutes or from Edison itself."

The actual problem is not something politicians can use to get elected

This worker obsolescence/fossilization is the root issue. Offshoring and H-1Bs are symptoms, and easy targets for politicians and others who benefit from telling simple hero-and-villain stories. The real issue here is the lack of investment in retraining and re-educating US workers to do jobs that command higher salaries.

We no longer live in a world where you train once in your 20s for a particular job, and then climb up the salary ladder of that job as you accumulate seniority until you retire. With the rate of change in the world now, we have to constantly re-train and learn new things.

Of course, investing in effective worker training is complicated and difficult, which is exactly the kind of thing that doesn't play well as a political issue. There are no heroes and villains for a start, just people bettering themselves with help from employers and governments. How do you turn that into a sharp-edged tweet and land a front page headline?

Are H-1B visa workers really stealing US jobs or is there a dearth of qualified labor in the US? originally appeared on Quora—the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: