The Other Side Of H1-B Visas

How restrictions on hiring will unfold for people who have nothing to do with technology.

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There is a lot of discussion these days about “Hire American.” But what does that actually mean in practice?

I’m at the Materials Research Society Spring Meeting this week, where one of the presentations was by a scientist who works at the TEL Technology Center, America, in Albany, NY. It’s the largest Tokyo Electron research center outside of Japan. It’s affiliated with the SUNY Polytechnic Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, which also has partnerships with Samsung (Korea), Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing, Toshiba (Japan), and ASML (Netherlands), as well as a number of American companies and organizations.

Of the more than 4,000 scientists, faculty, and staff who work at SUNY-affiliated facilities, many are from other countries. Some are legal permanent residents. Some have an H-1B visa or are on temporary assignments from their home countries. While the shortage of U.S. citizens with undergraduate or graduate-level engineering degrees is well known, let’s assume that some fraction of those jobs could be filled by Americans instead. SUNY’s international partners should hire Americans or take their business elsewhere. That would be great, right?

Well… all 4,000 of those SUNY-affiliated employees, citizens or not, have to live somewhere. They buy food and clothes and movie tickets. They pay taxes that support the local schools, whether they have children enrolled there or not. They may occasionally need medical care, they may have pets, they may invite their relatives to vacation in the nearby Finger Lakes. The Bay Area Council estimates that every technology industry employee supports an average of 4.3 additional jobs across all income levels, from retail sales people to mechanics and skilled tradespeople to teachers and dentists.

Now what happens if Tokyo Electron has to hire Americans to work in their American facility? Maybe they do, but maybe they discover that they can’t fill all the positions they need. Meanwhile politicians back in Japan are complaining about “shipping Japanese jobs overseas.” So they cut back. Or they close their research center altogether.

Their direct employees will be fine either way. The Americans, being highly trained engineers, will find plenty of work somewhere else. The Japanese employees will go back home. But what happens to all the residents of central New York whose jobs depended on TEL employees? They aren’t personally going to fill the engineering jobs — they aren’t qualified. They certainly aren’t going to move to Japan.

So is it a good thing or a bad thing if Tokyo Electron hires Japanese engineers to fill jobs in central New York?