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Balancing Act

Visa rules spark debate over recruiting foreign nationals during high U.S. unemployment

October 4, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 40

Webb (standing) takes a question as organizers Chris Bannochie (center) and Lynne Greenblatt observe.
Webb (standing) takes a question as organizers Chris Bannochie (center) and Lynne Greenblatt observe.

Statistics can be a powerful tool for proving a point, but what if the available numbers suggest conflicting scenarios?

Adding to the confusion is debate over the use and abuse of two visa types that allow foreign nationals to hold jobs at U.S.-based offices. Resolving these issues means weighing the needs of U.S. industry to compete globally against the health of domestic employment during what has been dubbed a jobless economic recovery.

Representatives from government, industry, and special interest groups presented both sides of the argument at last month's American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia during a symposium titled "Visa and Global Outsourcing Needs of, and Impacts on, the Chemical Process Industries," sponsored by the Division of Professional Relations.

On one end of the spectrum stand industry observers who fear that domestic chemists are losing ground to skilled workers from countries such as India and China who are hired to work in the U.S. in temporary positions. Current visa policies, they say, are being abused by recruiters to bring in foreign workers--and pay them low salaries--even when domestic candidates are available.

Dennis Chamot, associate executive director of the Division on Engineering & Physical Sciences at the National Research Council of the National Academies, noted that numerous chemical manufacturing jobs have already been lost to "offshoring"--moving jobs and even whole facilities to lower wage countries to tap into the local labor force. In the past few years, the telecommunications revolution has allowed companies to move other jobs, such as those in scientific research and development, that require advanced technical education.

"Today, we live in a world where capital, information, and goods move freely and quickly," Chamot said. Companies are competing on an international scale and are thus attracted to international supplies of cheap labor in an effort to reduce costs while remaining productive.

Using data from the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, Chamot estimated that, between 1988 and 2004, the discrepancy between the number of overseas jobs created by U.S. multinational companies and jobs created in the U.S. by foreign multinationals has resulted in a net loss of nearly 1 million jobs within the U.S.

A NEW THREAT to the domestic workforce debated by the speakers is that some multinationals appear to be using a visa loophole to hire foreign workers for positions at U.S.-based companies. Critics of the practice contend that companies are attracted to skilled labor from abroad because foreign workers who depend on them for visa sponsorship will accept lower salaries than their domestic counterparts will. The L-1B visa is a category used by multinational companies to transfer their own executives, managers, and "workers with specialized knowledge" to temporary assignments at U.S.-based facilities.


The visa was established in 1970 as a tool for enhancing global competitiveness. Critics, however, say the definition of specialized knowledge is broad enough to allow workers with general scientific backgrounds to come to the U.S. without the hiring company having to assess the availability of similarly qualified domestic scientists and engineers.

In an official statement, ACS acknowledges its concern about abuse of the L-1B visa and calls for legislators to make changes protecting U.S. workers, including clarifying the definition of specialized knowledge and creating a process for reporting and responding to abuses.

On the other side of the spectrum are employers who worry about finding enough skilled labor to meet demand as domestic interest in studying the physical sciences declines.

D. Ronald Webb, manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations for Procter & Gamble, said at the symposium that during the past 20 years, the number of U.S. students earning doctorates in chemistry has declined by 1% per year. Meanwhile, tighter visa policies and increased delays have precipitated a dramatic decline in the number of foreign chemistry students applying to U.S. schools.

"Where will the workforce come from if this trend continues?" Webb asked. When questioned why industry couldn't fill its demand with the many currently unemployed domestic chemists, Webb answered that most of the chemists looking for work now are higher level professionals. P&G has a culture of promotion from within, so most of its external hires are new graduates. The U.S., he said, needs to maintain a good balance between domestic and foreign applicants to ensure that companies can hire the best graduating chemists.

Recruiters, Webb said, are particularly concerned about the limited availability of the H-1B category visa, a type of visa designed to allow foreign workers with advanced degrees in a "specialty occupation" to hold a job in the U.S. for three to six years. If foreign students are hired by a U.S. company after graduation, they usually convert from a student visa to an H-1B visa before considering permanent residency.

Unlike the L-1B program, H-1B visa petitions have special requirements in place to curb abuse. Employers, for one, must prove that they have thoroughly searched the local job market before seeking an international candidate. They must also file a Labor Condition Application, a document showing that the wage rate for an H-1B candidate will be on a par with the prevailing domestic wage for the job and that potential coworkers are aware of the foreign hire and won't be adversely affected.

THE PROBLEM, Webb said, is that the number of new H-1B visas that the U.S. government can issue each year is capped, another restriction not associated with the L-1B program. For fiscal 2004, which began last October, a maximum of 65,000 H-1B visas were available, and that limit was reached by mid-February. New visa petitioners could begin filing in April, but approved petitioners couldn't hold a U.S. job until Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2005. Even when the annual cap was as high as 195,000 in fiscal 2000, industry employers were pursuing more foreign applicants than they could hire. Lobbyists concerned about the poor domestic employment situation in the U.S. prompted Congress to lower the cap in fiscal 2003.

The truth, as with most polarized issues, might lie somewhere in the middle. Jeffrey W. Pitts, a senior attorney in the New Jersey office of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, a law firm that specializes in global business immigration, stated that in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, climate, the long-term goals for the U.S. have become homeland security and advancement of the economy. "We want to protect U.S. citizens and their jobs, but we don't want to impede ideas from foreign nationals," he said.

Foreign nationals, Pitts said, understand the need for changes to U.S. visa policy and are willing to cooperate. They recognize that measures such as biometric identifiers and tracking databases are important security tools. However, several glitches need to be addressed to make the visa system more efficient so that foreign applicants and the companies hiring them are not deterred.

Unemployed U.S. chemists and graduating job seekers can sharpen certain skills to better compete with foreign talent.

"The world is becoming an international marketplace," said John K. Borchardt, a freelance writer and chemical consultant who serves on the ACS Membership Affairs Committee. "An individual's technical advantages are increasingly fleeting--you need to worry more about combining chemistry with other skills to strengthen your competitive advantage."

Job seekers today are encouraged to focus on developing soft skills such as effective communication, teamwork, leadership, and business acumen, Borchardt said. He advises them to attend conferences and social events and read to stay abreast of both research and business trends. Such skills not only increase employees' value, he said, but also prepare them for alternative careers in an age of decreased job security.


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