How the H1-B Visa Executive Order Impacts Semiconductor Engineers
With the H1-B work visa program suspended by an executive order from the Trump administration, many engineers and the companies they work for in the U.S. worry about the future of the industry.
The H1-B visa program allows U.S.-based companies to hire foreign workers in specialty fields such as engineering, biotechnology, medicine and other areas entailing advanced education and skill. Thousands of companies and organizations —ranging from startups to medium-sized businesses to universities to multinational corporations — sponsor foreign workers annually through the program.
Why the Change?
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing surge in unemployment across the U.S. workforce, the Trump administration recently placed a freeze on all new H1-B work visas, effective June 24. One administration official stated anonymously to reporters that the freeze would free up 525,000 jobs for American workers.
The move is an extension of an earlier proclamation to suspend all lawful immigration into the U.S., enacted back in April. Now, the administration is including H1-B visas into the proclamation and will extend the order beyond its 60-day limit to the end of 2020.
The change to the H1-B program does not apply to visa-holders currently working in the U.S. Still, many H1-B workers are concerned about the future of their immigration status and whether they'll be able to travel internationally to visit friends and family before the suspension is lifted in December. Spouses of H1-B workers are not able to enter the U.S. under the new restrictions.
How This Order Affects the Engineering Industry
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) estimates that around 583,420 workers are currently part of the H1-B program, as of September 30, 2019. According to USCIS data, the companies with the most new and continuing H1-B visa approvals in 2019 were large consulting services like Cognizant, Tata Consultancy Services and Deloitte, alongside major tech giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google.
Global semiconductor giants including Intel, Micron, AMD, Qualcomm and Broadcom were also among the top employers listed on the USCIS’ record of visa approvals.
Christopher Dries, president and CEO of United Silicon Carbide, said the importance of immigration to the U.S. predates the semiconductor industry. Dries has seen firsthand successes of engineers who have immigrated to the U.S. from abroad.
“UnitedSiC’s employees originally hail from 15 different countries,” Dries said. “We have sponsored many of our employees through the H1-B process and these employees have been critical to our success.”
Christopher Dries, CEO and president of United SiC. Image courtesy of United SiC.
Dries said the work involved in power electronics and semiconductor design and fabrication requires a specific skill set, which generally requires advanced degrees in materials science and electrical engineering. That significant knowledge, however, is often found outside the U.S.
“The pool of United States citizens with this specific skill set is quite small as the graduate school ranks here in the US are often filled with a majority of foreign students. Therefore, it is essential to extend offers to foreign nationals and work to develop their permanent residency status,” Drie said.
According to MyVisaJobs.com, semiconductor makers and other electronic component manufacturers are the 10th-ranked H1-B industry by the number of applications submitted. Companies in this category submitted 8,569 Labor Condition Applications for H1-B visas in 2019, paying an average salary of $116,596.
The Semiconductor Industry Association, one of the industry’s largest trade groups, also released a statement opposing the action: “With the U.S. and global economy facing unprecedented challenges, now is the time to pursue pro-growth policies that enhance the competitiveness of the semiconductor industry, a foundational industry driving growth and jobs across the entire economy,” SIA’s statement reads. “It is simply not the time to block our access to the best and brightest from around the world.”
Dries echoed that statement, saying that this order could signal a need to move it’s facilities in areas of the world that better reflect the knowledge needed in order to be successful in the semiconductor industry.
“We will continue to advance irrespective of the order, but my expectation is that we will have to invest in design centers in areas of the world that are creating the talent required to be successful in these extremely competitive industries,” Dries said. “There are simply not enough qualified US citizens to do the work that our industry does and we will be forced to go where the talent resides.”