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A visa shortage

IF THIS COUNTRY'S universities were producing enough US-born scientists and engineers, its businesses, hospitals, and schools would not be so dependent on non-US technical employees. But, especially now that the economy is recovering, the shortage of such highly trained personnel threatens to put a brake on growth.

For the fiscal year that began last Oct. 1, Congress authorized 65,000 of the specialized H-1B visas for foreign scientists, engineers, and workers in a handful of other fields such as chefs and fashion models. The quota was filled Feb. 17, and it wasn't because of a sudden demand for sushi chefs. Congress should expand the quota for next year.

A glance at the commencement lists of universities awarding advanced degrees in engineering, computers, and mathematics explains the problem. More than half are foreign nationals. US-born students are somewhat better represented at Boston-area universities, but even here, 45 percent of all engineering doctorate degrees go to foreign nationals.

These students benefit greatly from their US educations and, often, from research grants funded by US taxpayers. But the nation gets no payback from this when, because of a shortfall in visas, a foreign-born student must find employment in a foreign country, often competing against US firms.

Opposition to expanding the H-1B quota, which is set to fall to 58,000 next year, comes from the AFL-CIO. Labor unions worry that employers use the visa program to get workers at lower salaries. Employers say they would be happy to employ US-born scientists and engineers if they could find them, and they point to regulations requiring them to pay prevailing wages and full benefits to H-1B workers. They also note that by hiring such employees they incur extra administrative costs and red tape.

A long-term argument against granting employers greater use of H-1Bs is that it takes pressure off the US educational system to produce more scientists and engineers. An organization, Compete America, that represents employers seeking more H-1Bs says its members would welcome reinstatement of a $1,000-per-visa fee that companies formerly paid to the Department of Labor for improved technical training in the United States. That fee expired last year.

Improvement of science and mathematics education in US schools has to be a priority for policy makers and educators as well as employers. More countries are opening their borders to highly trained workers from other nations, and some countries are getting more US-trained workers to return. The worst scenario for employers is a continuing shortfall in US-born personnel and a falloff in foreigners seeking to work here. In the meantime, Congress should expand the H-1B quota. 

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