The H-1B visa — often used by banks to fill tech-focused roles — continues to come under needed scrutiny following high-profile controversies, including over hiring at Walt Disney World. While banks should be wary of potential restrictions on the program, policymakers should be mindful of the consequences of limiting H-1B visas too severely.
In January, Walt Disney World suffered significant negative press and got hit with lawsuits after H-1B visa holders were outsourced through information technology staffing vendors to replace the company’s internal employees. That and other controversies have prompted criticism of the program, which is the most common way for foreign, highly-skilled non-immigrants to gain temporary worker status in the U.S. Any perception of visa holders taking jobs from Americans only adds to the highly-charged debate over immigration in an election year.
To big banks and IT-heavy companies, however, hiring visa-dependent workers makes perfect sense. The need for highly-specialized professionals in the fields of computer science, programing and engineering is rampant as technology becomes more innovative and evolutionary. Banks hire more specialized workers to keep ahead of various IT projects and to meet critical deadlines.
In the wake of the controversy, banks that make use of this program without a business rationale have greater reputational risks more than ever. And the risk could get worse. There has been a push by lawmakers to revisit the particulars of the H-1B program, with numerous bills to look at, among other things, doubling the visa fee and reducing the number of visas issued. For example, a bill proposed last year by Sens. Jeff Session, R-Ala., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., would reduce the number of visas by 15,000.
Banks should be on their guard. Financial institutions looking to gain skilled works on H-1B visas must be able to present a solid business case and adhere to legal and compliance norms before hiring, as well as review their risk management programs dealing with third-party vendors to monitor H-1B program compliance of their IT partners and contractors. The Department of Labor recently investigated possible misuse of the visa program when over 500 technology workers were laid off by Southern California Edison, an electric utility. The workers claimed they were asked to train their replacements from two global IT companies.
If lawmakers go too far, the effects could be significant for banks and their vendors who rely on the H-1B program. Already, the number of available H-1B visas is limited. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on April 7 that it reached the congressionally mandated cap of 85,000 visas for 2017 within just one week of the H-1B visa petition window opening. Global IT companies, which large banks rely on, top the list in terms of industries requesting visas.
Simply politicizing the H1-B visa program, penalizing banks and IT companies, or increasing visa fees will not help grow the economy and enhance IT skills in the domestic workforce. If worker resources are not available here in the U.S., corporations have no choice but to offshore IT jobs abroad.
For instance, let’s consider a domestic midsized bank with 50,000 employees, 20% of whom are IT professionals. This bank may need to build in a cushion of temporary IT skills in multiple areas of expertise such as client server, database or niche platform for many of its technology initiatives. The bank may also need access to these skills with short lead times to hire. If the H-1B program is discouraged and the bank can no longer staff these positions with U.S.-based personnel, this bank will be forced to move jobs offshore — either directly as the big banks do or through IT firms. In this scenario, the U.S. would lose these IT jobs entirely.
In looking at the basics of supply and demand of high-skilled specialized labor, it would be a rational approach for lawmakers to look into historical technology consumption, projected future growth and set the right visa cap every year. Policymakers must strike delicate balances in many areas: between enhancing local IT skills and providing needed access of high skilled workers; between setting minimum wage requirements for H1-B workers and making high-skilled labor affordable for small-sized banks; and between preventing visa misuse and standardizing the visa program to sustain our leading edge in innovation.
But, in an election year, will rational thinking prevail on any topic involving jobs and immigration?
Senthil Selvaraj is a former operational risk executive with Bank of America.