A San Diego life sciences startup. Courtesy CONNECT
A San Diego life sciences startup. Courtesy CONNECT

By Don Sheppard

There have been a plethora of discussions lately about what U.S. immigration policies might change in 2017. This has many technology companies in the U.S. concerned about negative impacts on their workforce. If H1-B visas and other non-immigrant work visas become more restrictive than they already are, it could negatively impact their productivity and growth.

Take a look at the sharing economy companies that create mobile application platforms for individuals to offer services, such as rides or rooms as a great example. Global accounting firm PwC believes this market has the potential to grow to $335 billion by 2025. These companies rely on foreign workers in positions related to software engineering, data science, design and system administration which helps drive this growth. These companies, as well as other tech companies, are always looking for qualified applicants. The pool of applicants must include foreign nationals to ensure that companies are able to hire employees with the technical skills they are looking for.

The reason is the availability of talent. U.S. News & World Report noted that more foreign nationals than ever before are outpacing American-born students in the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields. There are more than 200,000 foreign students studying in STEM fields in U.S. colleges, and that number is trending upward. Meanwhile, the American-born STEM student graduate rate is relatively flat.

Don Sheppard

These numbers leave tech companies with few options but to go the arduous route of sponsoring foreign nationals for H1-B and other non-immigrant work visas. Its neither cheap nor easy, but the fact remains that for the sharing economy and other such industries to thrive, they will need to hire and retain highly skilled employees regardless of their country of origin. Its for this reason that the number of H1-B visas for computer systems design and related services specialists outpace the next highest category nearly ten-fold.

The current anti-visa rhetoric is misplaced and routinely inaccurate. The H1-B visa is for specialty occupations, and employers are required to pay appropriate wages so that the program does not drive down salaries. To change the rules on this program would be disruptive to many businesses.

Many desiring change in the system believe that Americans are shut out of good paying jobs because foreign nationals are willing to accept lower salaries. The reality is quite different. Take the example of H1-B visa holders for computer systems design and related services, whose average salary is more than $77,000 — more than 50 percent greater than the average salary for someone working in the U.S. Additionally, the H-1B program requires employers to pay prevailing wages so that paying lower salaries is not permitted. There may be some abuses to the program, but the regulations already have mechanisms to deal with those abuses. Changing the program rules will not result in any positive outcome.

Work programs such as the H1-B visa are necessary for companies to continue innovating and driving economic prosperity for all. U.S. policy makers must factor this reality into any new changes. If not, the result could do more to disrupt the American workforce than support it.

Don Sheppard is a partner at the San Diego law firm Higgs Fletcher & Mack and is certified as a legal specialist in immigration and nationality law. His typical clients are companies in the high-tech and startup industries seeking to hire the brightest and best talent which includes foreign nationals that need employment sponsorship.