But amid calls for expanding the nation's so-called H-1B visa program, there is growing pushback from Americans who argue the program has been hijacked by staffing companies that import cheaper, lower-level workers to replace more expensive U.S. employees — or keep them from getting hired in the first place.
"It's getting pretty frustrating when you can't compete on salary for a skilled job," said Rich Hajinlian, a veteran computer programmer from the Boston area. "You hear references all the time that these big companies ... can't find skilled workers. I am a skilled worker."
Hajinlian, 56, who develops his own web applications on the side, said he applied for a job in April through a headhunter and that the potential client appeared interested, scheduling a longer interview. Then, said Hajinlian, the headhunter called back and said the client had gone with an H-1B worker whose annual salary was about $10,000 less.
"I didn't even get a chance to negotiate down," he said.
The H-1B program allows employers to temporarily hire workers in specialty occupations. The government issues up to 85,000 H-1B visas to businesses every year, and recipients can stay up to six years. Although no one tracks exactly how many H-1B holders are in the U.S., experts estimate there are at least 600,000 at any one time. Skilled guest workers can also come in on other types of visas.
An immigration bill passed in the U.S. Senate last year would have increased the number of annually available H-1B visas to 180,000 while raising fees and increasing oversight, although language was removed that would have required all companies to consider qualified U.S. workers before foreign workers are hired.
The House never acted on the measure. With immigration reform considered dead this year in Congress, President Barack Obama last week declared he will use executive actions to address some changes. It is not known whether the H-1B program will be on the agenda.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is among the high-profile executives pushing for more H-1Bs. The argument has long been that there aren't enough qualified American workers to fill certain jobs, especially in science, engineering and technology. Advocates also assert that some visa holders will stay and become entrepreneurs.
Critics say there is no across-the-board shortage of American tech workers, and that if there were, wages would be rising rapidly. Instead, wage gains for software developers have been modest, while wages have fallen for programmers.
The liberal Economic Policy Institute reported last year that only half of U.S. college graduates in science, engineering and technology found jobs in those fields and that at least one third of IT jobs were going to foreign guest workers.
The top users of H-1B visas aren't even tech companies like Google and Facebook. Eight of the 10 biggest H1-B users last year were outsourcing firms that hire out thousands of mostly lower- and mid-level tech workers to corporate clients, according to an analysis of federal data by Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology. The top 10 firms accounted for about a third of the H-1Bs allotted last year.
The debate over whether foreign workers are taking jobs isn't new, but for years it centered on low-wage sectors like agriculture and construction. The high-skilled visas have thrust a new sector of American workers into the fray: the middle class.
Last month, three tech advocacy groups launched a labor boycott against Infosys, IBM and the global staffing and consulting company ManpowerGroup, citing a "pattern of excluding U.S. workers from job openings on U.S soil."
They say Manpower, for example, last year posted U.S. job openings in India but not in the United States.
"We have a shortage in the industry all right — a shortage of fair and ethical recruiting and hiring," said Donna Conroy, director of Bright Future Jobs, a group of tech professionals fighting to end what it calls "discriminatory hiring that is blocking us ... from competing for jobs we are qualified to do."