US opens a brain drain for foreign programmers

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The United States has agreed to raise a quota on temporary visas for skilled foreigners to alleviate apparent shortages of computer programmers. The annual limit will go up from 65,000 to 200,000 next year.

The imported workers, most of whom come from India, are needed because American schools do not graduate enough young people with science and math skills. Microsoft chairman, Bill Gates, and Intel chairman, Andrew Grove, told the US Congress in June that more visas were only a stopgap until education improved.

However, some analysts contend that high-tech companies create artificial shortages by refusing to hire experienced programmers. Many with technology degrees no longer work in the field. By age 50, fewer than half are still in the industry. Luring them back requires higher pay.

The average salary for experienced software engineers in the West Coast was $71,100 in 1999, up only 10 percent (in constant dollars) from 1990.

Also, older workers are rejected because they will not work the long hours typical at Silicon Valley companies with youthful “singles” styles. Temporary workers, in contrast, cannot demand higher pay: visas are revoked if workers leave their sponsoring companies.

As for young computer workers, the labor market has recently tightened, with rising wages, because college students saw earlier wage declines and stopped majoring in math and science. In 1996, American colleges awarded 25,000 bachelor’s degrees in computer science, down from 42,000 in 1985.

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