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H1B visas and the SAP market

IT workers in general and SAP professionals in particular continue to debate the pros and cons of the proposed increase in H1B visas.

The issue of H1B visas is an important one for all SAP professionals, affecting their job prospects and earning...

potential. With the U.S. proposing an increase in H1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 per year, plus the continuation of 20,000 visas for highly educated foreigners, there's been quite a bit of debate about what that would mean for U.S. workers.

H1B visas enable foreign IT workers to enter the U.S. workforce. Hiring companies generally like this because it keeps rates in check while bringing more skills to the market. American SAP professionals tend to be unenthusiastic about the increased competition.

"In the past years, I would have said that there are enough SAP consultants and it would be better in the long run to preserve higher rates for good consultants and limit H1Bs," said Jon Reed, veteran SAP career expert on SearchSAP.com. "But with all the upgrade projects going on right now, you could make a serious argument that more senior SAP consultants are needed."

But what about those just beginning their SAP careers? Will an increase in H1B visas affect their prospects? This question generated debate among readers responding to posts on SearchSAP.com's blog, SAP Watch.

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One feeling expressed in comments to SearchSAP.com's H1B posts was that increasing the number of competitors in the pool would decrease the opportunities for U.S. citizens to get their first SAP job, preventing them from gaining the experience to become senior SAP consultants. In turn, this could increase the future need for experienced foreign workers to fill the gaps.

There is one area that is -- and will probably always be -- a safe haven for American SAP professionals: government work.

"An H1B worker cannot work for any U.S. government-related projects," said Alan Alagappan, a consultant for Accenture Government Services. "Also, most guest workers complete their projects and leave the country, even though some of them stay back as more work is given to them because of their skill level."

Another wrinkle to the story was that Gartner and others reported that India, long seen as a bottomless well of IT knowledge, is running low on talent, to the point of having to outsource its own IT jobs.

"This labor condition in India is very real and, yes, the big firms are actively searching for talent outside India due to price sensitivity," David Foote, chief research officer at New Canaan, Conn.-based Foote Partners LLC, said, adding that it's economics 101 in play. When the supply of qualified IT workers dwindles, prices go up and hiring companies have to look elsewhere, he said, particularly in low-cost places such as China, Poland and Bulgaria.

But India is perceived to have some benefits over other commonly mentioned countries in the outsourcing business.

"The cultural and language mix with India was perfect for U.S.-based companies," Reed said. "Other countries may have the technical capacity, but the cultural and language barriers might negatively impact the return on investment for offshoring."

This would translate to temporary respite for American IT workers, giving them a chance to boost their resumes until India catches up with its shortage and/or another country steps up to the plate, Reed concluded.

Some blog readers in the field questioned both the talent shortage as well as the cultural similarities as media myths, wondering whether those espousing them had ever spoken to someone born and raised in India.

Some Indian professionals commenting on the SearchSAP.com blog also suggested that the U.S. market would benefit from limiting H1B visas. The thinking was that Indian IT professionals will continue to invest in SAP education and become increasingly competitive, while Americans are less willing to put in such efforts because they are accustomed to "very high returns from very little effort."

Are American IT professionals less driven to excel than their Indian counterparts? We'll leave that question for the blog forum participants, but clearly there are no easy answers in the H1B debate. This controversy will continue to rage on for some time, Reed said, but it is important to keep the focus on the core issues.

"The one thing I feel strongly about is that I don't believe the H1B visa controversy should take on the tone of ethnic backlash," he said. "It's important to remember that there are SAP professionals of all ethnicities who are U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are also impacted by the increase in the supply of H1B consultants."

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