President Trump has long promised to crack down on tech firms that undercut American workers by bringing in less expensive foreign labor. Last month, he signed an executive order that promised extra oversight of the H-1B visa system that speeds the entry of high-skilled tech workers into the US. Critics called the order a public relations stunt that was unlikely to have any real impact on abuses in the system. Despite the lack of substance in the measure itself, however, the mounting rhetorical pressure from the White House may still be paying off.
On Tuesday, Infosys, an IT placement firm and one of the country’s top employers of H-1B visa holders, announced plans to hire 10,000 American workers by 2020. The company also promises to build four technology hubs in the US, the first of which will open in Indiana this year. To recruit this new and sizable workforce, Infosys will look to American colleges and universities. The initiative was long in the making, says Infosys CEO Vishal Sikka—part of an ongoing strategy within Infosys to train a new American tech workforce.
“We started to think about hiring locally at a much larger scale two years ago,” says Sikka. “This is a culmination of that.”
If so, this culmination certainly comes at a fortuitous time. As President Trump eyes the H-1B program, this announcement could help polish Infosys’s image ahead of any possible reforms.
If President Trump’s rhetoric really is pushing companies to alter their practices, it wouldn’t be the first time he has used the bully pulpit to literally bully businesses into change. In that way, H-1B reform may be playing out in a way not unlike the deal president-elect Trump struck with Carrier, a manufacturer that was planning on shutting down an Indiana plant and moving its production to Mexico. After a series of high-profile tweets and a sweetheart deal negotiated between the air-conditioner maker and then-Indiana governor Mike Pence, Carrier agreed to keep the plant open, saving roughly 1,000 jobs.
The Infosys announcement would create 10 times as many. Whatever the company’s motivation, that number is a huge deal—roughly three times the number of people Twitter employs in total, for example. These Infosys jobs are likely to pay higher wages than more traditional manufacturing jobs like those at Carrier. Infosys also plans on offering training programs in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and cloud computing. Both supporters and critics of the H-1B visa program should be able to get behind those changes.
Sikka says that as technology itself becomes more complex, Infosys clients now demand new levels of expertise from their tech talent. “People are no longer just interested in doing the same thing, just cheaper,” he says.
Not so long ago, “the same thing but cheaper” seemed to be Infosys’ motto. Back in 2013, the company paid $34 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the company of “systemic visa fraud and abuse of immigration processes,” making it the largest immigration-related settlement ever. That same year, Infosys paid its H-1B visa employees among the lowest rates of any outsourcing firms, leveraging a loophole that enables companies to avoid hiring American employees as long as they pay foreign workers at least $60,000.
Sikka joined the company in 2014 and has since taken several steps to demonstrate Infosys’s commitment to hiring domestically. For example, the company launched the Infosys Foundation, which advocates for computer science education in schools. Still, he says Infosys has no plans to scale back on its H-1B workforce even as it grows its American one. “My view is that you have to bring the right skills and people with the right expertise from around the world to bear on different projects,” he says.
‘A One-Off Story’
Advocates of reform say the company’s abrupt about-face is a step in the right direction and may have ripple effects that raise wages across the industry. Yet, substantive as this announcement may be, they say it’s no substitute for policy. “This is a one-off story,” says Ron Hira, an associate professor at Howard University and one of the most vocal critics of H-1B visas. “There are hundreds of employers with an H-1B business model like Infosys.”
During a briefing about the President’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, which targets H-1B visas among other priorities, White House officials named Infosys as one of several serial abusers of the H-1B system. “Abuse of the H-1B visa program is bringing in a worker, not because you need the skills or talent, but for the purposes of undercutting the American worker,” one official said.
And yet that order stops short of prescribing any fixes directly. It merely directs government departments to recommend ways they could curb abuse. “The devil’s going to be in the details,” Hira says. Whatever these agencies ultimately decide, Infosys will have a stronger defense against a crackdown if it has an army of 10,000 American tech workers behind it.