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US tech firms look abroad for engineers

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Media captionMichelle Fleury reports on changes to US immigration policy

For Nikhilesh Ghantasala, getting into the United States to study computer science was the easy part. It's staying in the country that's the problem.

Mr Ghantasala hails from Hyderabad, India. He has just graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey and begun working full-time for Provenir, a business software company.

But come next April, if he is not selected for an H-1B visa - which allows "highly skilled" workers to come to the US - he will have to move back to India.

Competition for the visa is high though. Last year the quota was filled in just five days.

"I have seen most of my friends, they've been rejected twice," he says. "You think, 'oh my god, if I don't get it what happens?'

"Then I have to go back and I don't want to go back."

'Matter of life or death'

Image caption Nikhilesh Ghantasala just graduated with a Masters in Computer Science

As Secretary of State John Kerry visits India this week for the US-India Strategic Dialogue, a hot topic for debate will be just how many H-1B visas should be issued in the United States each year - and what sort of process employers should go through to fill their technology talent needs.

Currently, employers must sponsor foreign workers for the H-1B lottery, which often costs several thousand dollars and doesn't come with a guarantee that the employee will be selected.

There are 65,000 H-1B visas for foreign workers each year, with an additional 20,000 offered to graduate degree holders.

Silicon Valley has long argued that the cap on visas is too low and that by denying talented foreign workers visas, the "innovation economy" that has led to booming IT industries in areas such as California and New York will shrivel up.

"The tech industry throughout the United States is going through a major renaissance," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of the New York Tech Meetup, and founder of a start-up, Personal Democracy Media.

"We're converting our country from the 20th Century to the 21st, and to be able to do that successfully we have to have talent that understands the tech industry."

Right now, he says, "there simply aren't enough people in the US who are skilled in technology jobs," echoing a common complaint from start-ups to large technology companies like Google and Facebook.

Getting those workers is "a matter of life or death for the tech industry".

As a solution, part of the immigration reform bill currently being debated in the US Senate suggests increasing the number of H-1B visas offered each year from 85,000 to 110,000, in addition to making an exception for "market-based factors" that could allow for more visas to be issued in a given year.

'Indentured servitude'

However, critics of the proposed expansion argue that it's not the future Facebooks of the world that are in desperate need of more H-1B visas but rather large outsourcing firms like iGate Technologies and Cognizant that benefit most from the programme.

Many outsourcing firms are of course Indian and already the Indian government has objected to provisions in the bill that would tax companies whose workforce is made up of more than 50% of H-1B visa holders.

Those provisions are meant to appease critics such as Systems in Motion CEO Neeraj Gupta, himself a former H-1B visa holder who once sold a company to a large Indian outsourcing firm.

Mr Gupta says the cap on visas should not be raised unless serious questions about the programme in general are asked.

"Before you open up the numbers let's look at how they're being used today: more than 80% of H-1B visas go to outsourcing firms," says Mr Gupta.

"Let's stop the use of these visas for outsourcing and you have more visas available for the innovation economy."

Mr Gupta and others argue that foreign workers, mostly from India, are not necessarily future innovators but just cheaply educated lower-level engineers.

Because of the strictures of the H-1B programme, they are paid less money than equivalent American workers - and they have less bargaining power.

"If a worker complained about their wages or their working conditions, the employer could just threaten to lay them off and if they did that worker would have to leave the country," says Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Ron Hira, who is himself ethnically Indian and a mentor to many foreign graduate students.

"It's a form of indentured servitude."

The 24-hour work day

What everyone can agree on is that as long as technology firms continue to grow faster than workers can get trained, there will continue to be a demand for overseas labour.

KeepSkor is a start-up that aims to help brands create interactive games to help build product awareness.

At their offices in Grind, a trendy co-working space in midtown Manhattan, founder Tristan Louis tweaks prototypes of new games.

Image caption KeepSkor CEO Tristan Louis speaks to his engineers in Poland online

"Is there a joystick version where you could tap to jump?" he asks his product engineer, who quickly nods in agreement - on the screen in front of him.

The engineer, you see, is in Poland - the only place where Mr Louis could find tech talent that fitted his budget.

"We've been forced to outsource as opposed to hiring local talent," says Mr Louis. "Our day is really on a 24-hour continuum."

Mr Louis says that while he's sympathetic to arguments about issues surrounding wages and outsourcing, the reality is that he needs talented workers that he can afford on a shoestring budget - and that he needs them now, wherever they are.

"The reality is I'm still going to spend $80,000 (£52,000) a year for [an engineer], but the net result is that worker is going to spend that money in the overseas position instead of here."

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