President Donald Trump’s latest push to impose his “America First” ethos on Silicon Valley employment actually doesn’t impose much. For all of his early bluster, the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order announced Tuesday mainly just calls for a formal review and tighter enforcement of existing work visa rules.
Fine. Anything that smacks of deliberation is a relief, given the half-cocked nativists who have had Trump’s ear on the issue of tech hiring. It was not reassuring that his early policies on immigration and foreign visas had been shaped by Steve Bannon, a self-described “nationalist” who complained about “civic society” in Silicon Valley being overrun by Asian executives and immigrants.
That said, the H-1B visa system, which tech companies rely on to recruit and hire foreign workers, does need some fixing. Outsourcing companies have been gaming it for years. Californians are all too familiar with the spectacle of laid-off IT departments training replacements from India to get severance.
At the same time, Silicon Valley’s competitive edge depends on the flow of top international talent. Google, Apple and Facebook wouldn’t be where they are without brilliant foreign-born engineers.
Every year, tens of thousands of those workers are crowded out of the H-1B lottery by outsourcing companies who flood the system with applications; H-1B petitions annually are about triple the 85,000 allowed under the cap, which routinely is hit within days.
There still aren’t enough Americans to fill many of these jobs, which Trump implies could be done by Rust Belt workers with Trump University diplomas.
U.S. tech companies rely on H-1B system. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group reports that there are 125,000 job openings a year. But U.S. colleges graduate 50,000 computer science degree majors per year. Only half of them are born in the U.S.
It would be nice if nuanced solutions were part of this White House’s skill set, but they aren’t. Fortunately, Congress has several bills to address the H-1B mismatch. Surely we can make room for the next Elon Musk while protecting U.S. jobs on the help desk. Lawmakers have talked this issue to death and need to act before Trump does something for real.