At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, analysts and representatives of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries contended that the temporary work visa programs offered to educated foreign nationals crowd out Americans who already work in those fields. H-1B and L1 visas are intended to allow companies in the U.S. to bring foreign nationals to their offices in America to fill openings for which there are no qualified American candidates. Instead, some contend that the program is apparently being used to save costs and hire cheaper workers to do the work when companies cannot outsource it to a low-cost foreign location.
A 10000-strong Union of Electrical Workers has complained that the H-1B program helped their employer, Southern California Edison, to lay off 800 highly skilled American IT workers and replaced them with people brought in on H-1B visas, to work for limited periods for almost half the pay commanded by the local workers.
According to Hal Salzman, professor at the J.J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, the U.S. supply of graduates in most energy fields is far greater than the industries’ hiring needs to begin with. The professor also said that the guest worker visas only facilitate the offshoring of IT work to other locations.
Arguments for H-1B visas to fill the talent shortages in the energy sector point to the following:
Utilities like power and water are taken for granted, but impossible to live without. Not having enough workers could impact the provision of new connections, power restorations in case of breakdowns, and the ongoing proactive maintenance needed to ensure continuity of service. Labor shortages have resulted in excessive overtime hours, creating a very negative image for the job and make it even harder to find people willing to join it.
So who is right in their assessment of the need for energy-related workers? As often happens, both sides are right and wrong. Future recruitment plans must be built by the sector and job description, identifying the types and volumes of resources that will be needed to achieve the transformation that is underway in the creation and delivery of energy while also supporting the existing infrastructure. At the same time, creative programs are needed to ensure knowledge transfer from those reaching retirement age, and incentives may be needed to extend the tenure of retiring workers. The use of foreign nationals working under an H-1B or L1 visa can then been strategically applied.
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