Business & Economy

SoCal locals watch cautiously as Trump talks H-1B reforms

 Who will be hired for the STEM jobs of the future? President Trump has proposed restrictions to the H-1B visa program to limit who can come to the US to work in high-skilled jobs.
Who will be hired for the STEM jobs of the future? President Trump has proposed restrictions to the H-1B visa program to limit who can come to the US to work in high-skilled jobs.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Under an executive order he called "Buy American, Hire American," President Donald Trump proposed new restrictions to the H-1B visa program this week, touting the changes as a way to give American workers a leg up on high paying engineering and technology jobs. But some people who help place Southern Californians in technology careers say there's plenty of demand for local workers.

Currently, 85,000 H-1B visas are given out annually to higher skilled foreign workers who have job offers from American firms. Most work in computer science, engineering or academia.

Employers in the STEM fields say the program helps them fill gaps in the American workforce, but Trump says the program is too vulnerable to abuse. The administration says in some cases employers skip past American job applicants and hire foreign workers with the same skills because they can pay them less.

To stop that practice, Trump has proposed getting rid of the lottery system that narrows the H-1B applicant field and replacing it with a process that prioritizes the highest-skilled and highest-paid foreign applicants, thus giving American workers more job slots in the low and mid range.

But it's not clear how much of a difference this would make in the local job market. 

STEM jobs are everywhere

"The demand for tech talent right now is at an all time high," said Scott MacKinnon, COO of Technical Connections, a longtime technology staffing firm in Southern California. "It doesn’t matter if they are H-1B, or green card or naturalized citizen, there are not enough [workers] to go around regardless of what goes forward with the H-1B process."

MacKinnon said American programmers and developers he works with often get multiple offers from companies, and there are more than enough job offers to go around.

That sentiment was shared by Dr. Burkhard Englert, chair of the Computer Engineering and Computer Science department at Cal State Long Beach.

When asked if his students or graduates ever complain that foreigners are beating them out for jobs, he said: "I've never heard such a complaint from any student ... I can’t vouch for every student obviously, but it's not like students come to my door and say, 'I’m very frustrated because of this.' Not at all."

In an email, General Assembly, which runs coding and programming boot camps around the country, told KPCC that 99 percent of its full-time graduates who complete job training get a job within 180 days. 

Could reforms go too far?

MacKinnon and Englert worry that Trump's visa reforms could have unintended consequences.

While much has been made about abuses of the H-1B program, such as at Disney and Edison, both men said they've mostly seen companies recruiting H-1B workers to retain the best talent and fill gaps in the American workforce. If those companies can't secure the workers they need, they could move their operations abroad.

"Companies may just say, 'If that’s what it is, then maybe we should just open an office outside the United States, and then we just hire people there and bring people there where the restrictions are less severe, because in the end what we really care about is the talent,'" said Englert. "And these are companies that already operate worldwide."

In that case, he said, Americans would see fewer STEM jobs in the U.S.

"At least now, there is a chance, if you are willing to get the degree, you train yourself and you’re well prepared, you can also obtain these positions. It happens all the time," Englert said.

Separately, if H-1Bs are prioritized by pay scale alone, it could create labor shortages in the "mid-tier range," MacKinnon said.

If, for example, H-1Bs are limited to foreign workers making $100,000 or more per year, it would shut off a pool of skilled foreign workers who typically make between $70,000-$99,000, he said. Some of those mid tier jobs in Southern California require specific skill sets that foreign workers have "cornered the market on" for years, MacKinnon added.

Don't expect it to happen overnight

Trump's H-1B plans will not have an immediate impact. The government's lottery system has already taken place for the 2018 H-1B visas, so any changes would happen in 2019 at the earliest.

While U.S. tech and engineering firms are worried about potential gaps in the workforce at that time, they expect it to happen gradually, MacKinnon said. He explained that H-1B visas last three years, and can be renewed for three additional years. That means there are already hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in the U.S. who will remain in place until their visas expire.

"There’s not going to be a light switch that’s flipped, and suddenly there’s 65,000 new jobs open for Americans only," MacKinnon said, adding, "there is a little bit of showboating going on, saying 'I’m bringing jobs back to America' – in about three to six years."