Failing Grades - H-1B fees fail to lessen reliance on imported IT skills : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

It's really interesting that many of these so-called "new technologies" are built on earlier technologies that older, displaced IT workers have already mastered. These older technologies were much harder to learn with less-productivity tools available than the new technology. I have personal experience with experienced older technical workers becoming proficient in these new skills in less than one week! This is whether they are self-taught or formally educated. In addition, these older, highly-experienced workers have learned the "business" end of systems design. They have learned from past mistakes what does and does not work. A whole generation of valuable experience is being lost because of corporate greed.


Failing Grades H-1B fees fail to lessen reliance on imported IT skills By Lisa Vaas, eWEEK September 18, 2000 12:00 AM ET

In September 1998, when big IT employers such as Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. were pushing for a substantial increase in the number of H-1B visas to fill what they said was a chronic shortage of people with important IT skills, the Clinton administration drew a line in the sand: no H-1B visa increases without more money for retraining U.S. workers to fill some of the high-paying IT jobs. When Congress agreed, requiring all employers applying for H-1B visas to kick $500 per visa into a fund, much of which is earmarked for retraining U.S. workers, President Clinton claimed vic tory.

"To address [the shortage of skilled workers] and maintain America's competitive edge, we must give U.S. workers new opportunities to train and to learn new skills," Clinton said when he signed the bill increasing H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 annually for fiscal years 1999 and 2000 and to 107,000 for fiscal year 2001, imposing the fees and increasing monitoring by the Department of Labor to ensure that employers wouldn't fire Americans and replace them with lower-wage temporary workers from offshore.

Two years later, although the fees have raised $153.7 million, IT employers and legislators say the programs funded by the money have so far failed to train significant numbers of Americans to fill the most important job openings or to reduce employers' reliance on H-1B workers. In fact, as Congress prepares to consider three new bills that would again increase H-1B visas-and, in some cases, the training fees-IT employers and trade groups are beginning to call for changes in how the funds raised by retraining fees are controlled. Rather than being doled out by the Labor Department and other government agencies, the funds should be controlled by regional alliances that wed business, education and labor unions, say organizations such as the Information Technology Association of America.

eWeek reporting supports the claim that retraining programs funded by H-1B fees are failing to lessen dependence on imported IT talent. Calls to companies on the list of corporate partners of one Labor-funded program, Bay Area Video Coalition, or BAVC, in San Francisco, didn't turn up a single organization that could claim to have reduced its use of H-1B visa holders because of the program. That list included names such as Adobe Systems Inc., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Xceed Inc. Indeed, spokes people for many firms contacted weren't familiar with the program at all.

Even big IT employers familiar with the H-1B fee-funded training programs say they haven't been used to reduce dependence on workers from outside the United States. Sun, for example, donates cash, equipment and curriculum develop ment to training pro grams funded by the H-1B fees, yet within Sun itself, the programs have brought about no impact on H-1B visa usage. Why isn't Sun hiring training program graduates into positions held by H-1B visa workers? Because the skill levels of the two groups are worlds apart, said a Sun spokesman. "There's no data on actual skill levels, but the Sun people who are on H-1B visas are very highly skilled," said the spokesman, in Washington.

Like Sun, many IT employers see a vast discrepancy between the high skill levels of most H-1B visa holders and the entry-level skills of most graduates of H-1B fee-funded training programs. While many H-1B visa holders can step right into high-skill jobs that are in high demand, such as systems analyst and database administrator, many graduates of the programs funded by H-1B fees are prepared only for such low-end jobs as working on a help desk. Indeed, because the skill levels of H-1B visa holders and those of the graduates of skills training programs are so differ ent, most of the corporations interviewed for this story were mystified by the idea that domestically trained workers could fill the shoes of H-1B visa holders.

As a result, although the Labor- fund ed programs are a worthy cause, they have turned out to have nothing to do with reducing reliance on H-1B workers, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., one of the prime movers behind current H-1B legislation on Capitol Hill. "They really are apples and oranges," Lofgren told eWeek. "The minimum [educational requirement] for an H-1B is a bachelor's, and half of them have Ph.D.'s. Training is good, but a six-month training program will not fill the need for a Ph.D. or a post-doc in particle physics."

Why are retraining programs funded by H-1B fees failing? Many observers point to the way the funds are doled out. According to the ITAA, problems arise from the fact that the Labor Department is in charge of handling the lion's share of training and reskilling funds-56.3 percent, to be exact, while 28.2 percent goes to National Science Foundation scholarships that have yet to be awarded. (To see how the funds are allocated, see chart, above.)

The Labor Department, according to the ITAA, is too slow-moving for the task of churning out a highly skilled IT work force as quickly as the industry requires. "[Our original] concern was, it won't be well-spent, and to some extent our fears were realized," said Harris Miller, president of the ITAA, in Arlington, Va. "The [Labor Department] was slow in getting the money out. The process is very bureaucratic. We can't go back to Congress and say, 'Because of these millions in fees we've spent, we now have X amount of computer experts to hire.'"

IT employers aren't the only ones critical of how training money has been spent. The allocation of training funds has also been criticized in a recent report by the U.S. General Accounting Office. The GAO said funds haven't been allocated with precision because the Labor Department never determined exactly what IT skills are needed in the domestic work force.

Another problem, Miller said, is that Labor has a history of focusing on workers who need far too much training to meet the industry's need to get workers trained in the near term. "The reality is that for most of the [Labor Department's] history, they've focused on people with no skills, trying to get them basic skills," Miller said. In May, the ITAA voiced opposition to a proposed substantial increase in H-1B retraining fees. The ITAA also is pushing for the H-1B training funds to be handled by regional alliances that include IT employers.

Officials at training programs funded in part by H-1B fees don't dispute the notion that they are training mostly low-skill, entry-level workers. Many of these programs, they point out, existed before the H-1B fees became available.

Indeed, the two years BAVC has been running a job skills training program have shown that training recipients need remedial skills long before they touch a computer. That includes skills such as learning how to interview and how to create a risumi, said BAVC spokes man Garrick Ramirez. "They need to feel comfortable with protocol-simple things, like showing up on time," Ra m irez said. BAVC is part of a consortium that recently received a $3 million grant from the Labor Department-funded wholly from H-1B fees-to fund MediaLink, an eight-week course that delivers digital media training.

None of this is meant to suggest the programs are failing on all counts, however. Although they aren't yet meeting the mandate to wean the country from its H-1B visa reliance, programs such as BAVC's are having a positive impact on the lives and careers of some people.

Samuel Kress is one of those people. Before he found his way into Media Link, Kress was receiving public assistance. But after four months with Media Link, he picked up a slew of skills that included basic HTML; design programs, such as Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop and Illustrator; JavaScript; CGI; and PERL. With those skills in hand, he wound up as a programmer when he was hired in July by Global Partners, a provider of Web site hosting and other services, in Windsor, Calif. Kress went from receiving $300 per week on welfare to his current pay of $35 hourly. That's far below what most IT employees with critical skills-including H-1B holders-are making. But for Kress, it's a huge step up.

"BAVC is one of the best things that ever happened to me," said Kress, in San Francisco. "It opened a door that would never have been possible. I didn't ever imagine ... I'd ever make $35 an hour."

Ironically, Kress' success story has as much to do with luck as training. He went on four interviews without being hired. Even though high-tech companies claim to be desperate, he said, they would not hire candidates without experience. Eventually, Kress got in the door after being introduced to Global Partners by his fiancee's mother, a client of the company's.

While the H-1B fee-funded training programs have been good news for people like Kress, they've produced few results for IT employers in search of people with high-end skills. While, as the ITAA suggests, that may be because the money's going to the wrong program, experts say there may be another explanation: There's simply no quick fix for the country's lack of people with important IT skills. And, even if there were, it probably couldn't be fixed with the kind of money being raised by H-1B fees. The Labor Department will dole out about $83 million in training grants by year's end. That money will be spent on training about 5,000 Americans-a trifle when compared with the ITAA's controversial but often-quoted figure of 840,000 open IT jobs.

Whatever the reason, IT employers say, H-1B-funded training has fallen far short of the goal set for it by participants such as the Labor Department, which earlier this year said the programs were aimed at "raising the skill levels of domestic workers so that they can fill high-skill jobs which are pres ently being filled by temporary workers being admitted to the United States under the provisions of H-1B."

-- K (, September 18, 2000

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