Talented immigrants key to tech, professor says

| Friday, July 18, 2008

America needs immigrants to grow its technology industry, but permanent ones, not temporary workers, according to an Indian immigrant who founded two software companies here.

Vivek Wadhwa, a Duke University professor and Harvard research fellow who writes a regular column for BusinessWeek, said during a visit Thursday that if we don't keep talented foreign workers here, they'll go home and compete with us there.

"We're setting the stage for a massive reverse brain drain of Western-educated, brilliant talent back to India and China, which is really brain-dead policy," said Wadhwa during a Pittsburgh Technology Council briefing at Seagate Research in the Strip District.

Indian and Chinese operations can do work for U.S. companies cheaply, which leads to more outsourcing of U.S. jobs, he said.

America should try to keep U.S. educated foreigners here for the long term, Wadhwa said. He criticized the H-1B visa program, which sets aside 85,000 temporary work visas every year for specialized workers.

Because H-1B workers who want to stay more than the maximum 6 years depend on their employer to sponsor them for a permanent visa, or "green card," the employer can pay them less without fear of them quitting, he said.

Instead of what he called an exploited "subclass" of H-1B workers pulling down wages, Wadhwa said the United States should give those workers green cards.

Immigrants are risk-takers and natural entrepreneurs, Wadhwa said.

One quarter of U.S. computer and other technology companies that formed in the last decade had at least one foreign-born founder, said Wadhwa, citing a recent survey by his Duke team of more than 2,000 such companies.

The share is closer to half in Silicon Valley, Wadhwa said. But in Pennsylvania, fewer than 15 percent of new technology companies had an immigrant founder.

"You've got a major marketing problem here," Wadhwa said.

Among other things, the region should promote awareness of "investor visas," he said.

In Western Pennsylvania, an immigrant who spends $500,000 starting a company with at least 10 employees can move to the head of the line for a green card. That's half the standard requirement of $1 million, thanks to a special federal program for rural areas or regions with high unemployment.

A similar program in Philadelphia has created 6,500 jobs since starting in 2004, said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Wadhwa recently spent several months in India, visiting more than 100 technology companies. Despite a poor infrastructure, corruption and a weak educational system, he said, the country is becoming a powerhouse -- not just in telephone call centers, but in all sorts of research and development, from software programming to first-class airplane seat design.

Through intensive and continuing on-the-job training, India is building a highly skilled and adaptive work force, he said.

A similar tour of China left Wadhwa less concerned. Despite its boom in manufacturing and building, China still trails the United States in new technology development, he said.

"You can mandate and buy progress. You can mandate and buy infrastructure. But you can't mandate and buy innovation," he said.

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