Visa Worker Falsehoods

H-1B and L-1 foreign temporary "tech" worker myths with regard to:
  • Education
  • Work ethic

Updated: 1/7/2004

Unlike politicians, pundits, and lobbyists; my career is in the computer programming and software development field. I also have actually worked side-by-side with many technology visa workers. I have witnessed the whole "visa thing" first hand. I feel there are many false conceptions and propaganda floating around. A lot of it is due to ignorance about my profession from those not in it, but I suspect that a lot of it is also due to purposeful manipulation of public opinion for political or financial reasons.

Are Visa Workers Better Educated?

The claim that East Indian visa workers are better educated seems to be a common theme among pro-visa politicians and Indian tech schools. They allege that companies prefer foreign workers because "American education has fallen behind". They claim that the US economy needs access to more foreign tech experts in order to have the "best and brightest" talent. This "education gap" is totally false. It is a fictitious problem.

I have worked directly and indirectly with many India-educated IT (information technology) workers. By and far, I found their technical abilities on par with that of American citizens. Some are smart, and some are not so smart. Some individuals are smart in some areas and lacking noticeably in others. I have encountered as much variety in visa worker skills as citizen skills. Put another way, the individual-to-individual difference is far greater than any country-of-birth influence. There is nothing special about their technical knowledge or abilities compared to U.S. citizens.

The second and most important point is that formal education does not really make that much difference in software design and programming ability. In fact, the technical education from many "big-name" American universities puts far more emphasis on theory than most corporations really want. The "top" universities tend to prepare students for careers in high-end research rather than a typical IT office job. The problem is that most of them will end up in a typical office IT job anyhow. There are just not enough research positions to go around.

Universities generally don't want to fix this discrepancy because their status and reputation depends too much on published research recognition. Research gets far more attention than "genius office workers". Genius office workers generally do not publish research papers, partly because of the proprietary nature of their work. While business does not share original ideas, universities want to brag about original alumni ideas. Thus, universities tend to ignore the needs of corporate-bound alumni. Corporate workers offer insufficient "recognition pay dirt" for universities. The research paper tilt is a dirty little secret of the big-name universities.

Further, most universities are about 2 to 5 years behind the technologies of the working world. This is because it takes a while for professors and curriculum managers to change their teaching materials. This is one of the reasons why many schools tend to focus on abstract theory instead of more practical material: it does not change quite as fast. A good trade school is generally sufficient to provide one with the basics of software development. Heavy theory does not hurt, but it is just not appreciated in cubicle-land. The probable reasons for this are a complicated but interesting topic for another article. Needless to say, formal education is a bit out of touch with the realities of the working world.

Thus, a degree in Computer Science generally can only provide the fundamentals of what corporations really want out of a new programmer. Most of what makes a good programmer or software developer must be learned on the job and from self-study. Formal education tends not to prepare one for specific programming languages and tools, practical business knowledge, business culture, and diplomacy. The field of computer technology also requires one to constantly be learning new tools and "tech fads". Self-study and specific technology "certificates" are generally the route a seasoned techie uses to keep themselves and their resume up to date.

A degree is only the launching of the ship, not the journey. Heavier emphasis on formal education is mostly the wrong medicine. Pumping up higher education will not "save the American programmer". Most employers care far more about one's last 4 years of experience than they do about grades or school reputation. Live experience in specific technologies is the key hiring factor in my profession.

If I received a Masters degree in Computer Science instead of just a 4-year degree, it would not likely have made a noticeable difference. In fact, it would probably get me labeled as "overqualified", a common term heard during this tech recession. A Master's degree mostly makes you appear too expensive, too bored, too arrogant, and too demanding from the perspective of an employer of software experts. Whether it is actually true or not for a given individual, the stigma exists.

Do Visa Workers Work Harder?

My experience working among visa workers is that they actually do work harder than citizens in general. They will overall work longer hours and complain less about pay, working conditions, late paychecks, etc. However, I have learned that for the most part this is not due to any cultural discipline superiority, but instead due to the specific circumstances of a typical visa worker.

Most visa workers come to this country with one of two goals: either to make lots of money to take back home in order to live comfortably in their native land, or to stay here long enough to get temporary or permanent citizenship.

Because of the exchange rate differences, even a low-end programmer salary can buy a lot of goods and services in places such as India. Imagine as a U.S. citizen being given the opportunity to earn $240,000 a year in U.S. dollars. With that kind of money, you would be careful not to anger the goose that lays the golden eggs.

This is pretty much the situation that many visa workers are in. U.S. money goes a long way back in their home country. Annual U.S. salaries for programmers are generally equivalent to about six years of Indian programmer salaries. Thus, a yearly salary of $40,000 U.S. dollars has the spending power equivalent of about $240,000 when spent in India. They will put up with long hours and thick workloads in the U.S. to keep the big money coming and not risk losing the Mother of all Carrots.

If a visa worker angers an employer or otherwise gets laid off, then they risk being deported and losing their U.S. salary source. If not re-employed by a corporate visa sponsor, H-1B visa workers have a very short time period in which to find another visa sponsor before being deported. It is pretty much all or nothing. If they appear to be let go due to lack of performance, the chance of being re-sponsored is low being that there are plenty of other eager visa candidates. Thus, there is a lot of incentive to keep your current employer happy. Employers eventually figure this out and are happy to take advantage of it. Visa workers eventually spoil them so that they don't want citizens anymore.


Better formal education is not the reason for the popularity of tech visa workers. Slacking education makes a great political sound-byte because most people will believe it, not understanding the dynamics of typical IT professions. But any significant reasons for employer preferences of visa workers lay elsewhere. The only area I see where more formal education will help IT career citizens a bit is in "certificate" programs. These are courses that focus on specific technical languages or tools. However, certificates are not a magic solution. Lower wages and the pressure to be docile are a visa holder's "advantage" over citizens, not education.

Labor Shortage Myth | Fixing The Visa Program

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