Holders of Visas Often Picked Over Workers

Holders of visas often picked over U.S. workers
Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Telegram Investigation: Foreign Labor

Lisa Perry wanted to leave Washington D.C. and come home to Maine after living there during the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, anthrax scares and the Beltway sniper shootings.

She quit her job designing databases for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and moved back to the Portland area to live with her parents, returning to Maine after 13 years away. She worked on personal projects and took care of her parents' home for about a year, then started looking for an information technology job in the fall of 2004.

She put out a number of resumes, and one ad in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram caught her eye. It was for a $72,000 IT position, with applications to be sent to the Maine Department of Labor. She applied for what she thought was a job with the state.

But the labor department was actually forwarding those resumes to a temporary staffing company that had applied for a green card for a foreign worker. Advertising the job was part of the process to ensure that no qualified Americans were available to fill the position.

The staffing company contacted Perry, and she recognized the name: BCC USA Inc. She had seen other ads for jobs with BCC and hadn't bothered applying. Job seekers had to apply by snail-mail, and that was a warning sign for Perry.

“I'm looking for an IT job, a software development job,” said Perry. “If I can't apply by e-mail, if I can't find a Web site, it doesn't sound like a very real company.”

Software staffing companies that flooded Maine in 2004 and 2005 with labor certification applications for green cards had to advertise the jobs by law. And they also had to interview Americans who potentially fit the bill, and list reasons if the jobs didn't go to them.

According to records released by the state to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, a number of Maine residents like Perry applied to these jobs and were turned down.

Perry vaguely remembered the phone interview with BCC. At the end of the conversation, she knew the company was a provider of temporary IT labor. She wanted a long-term position with a company, and she wasn't interested in the BCC job.

BCC wasn't interested in her, either.

State records released to the newspaper show that BCC Chief Executive Officer Chinna Rao reported that the company interviewed Perry, and she wasn't qualified because she didn't have experience with a number of computer applications.

“They obviously weren't willing to consider someone who had transferable skills. They were definitely looking for something very specific,” said Perry.

“They weren't looking for someone like me, someone looking for a company, a place to call home, to stay a long time.”

Perry, who has her master's degree in mathematics from the University of Maine, plus some work toward her doctorate from the University of Maryland, has since found an IT job in the area.

Jack Wallace, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, also applied for the BCC position. He hoped to return to Maine, where he had worked in the early 1990s. He teaches programming at a local community college after losing his IT job due to state budget cuts, and hasn't worked in software for more than two years.

“There just aren't a lot of jobs for American computer programmers any more,” said Wallace. “When I got into the business, 20, 25 years ago every company had their own IT staff. They'd have a need, they'd assign a programmer to do it. It was all done in-house.

“Somehow it got away from that. People got the idea that they're better off hiring somebody from the outside to do the work.”
Wallace said he clearly remembered his interview with BCC. The interviewer asked him “very precise” questions.

“I remember thinking, 'Nobody's got that type of knowledge, that they would just know that type of detail work,”' said Wallace. “I was put into the situation where I either had to say I've never specifically done that or just come up with some lies off the top of my head; I kept saying 'I don't know' because I really don't like to bluff my way through these questions.”

He often had those impressions when interviewing for programming jobs, Wallace said.

“Sometimes I get the idea that the job's wired and they're looking to exclude people,” he said. “Sometimes I just get the idea that people expect programmers to know everything.”

Because Wallace didn't have all the skills BCC required, he also was unqualified, Rao wrote. Wallace and Perry were two of nine applicants for the job. All but Wallace were Maine-based job seekers.

BCC Marketing Director Karan Manickam said his Massachusetts-based company supplies IT workers to different companies. The applicants were turned down, he said, because the client companies wouldn't accept them.

“That is unfortunately the requirements. The clients have been very specific these days. If they miss one or two skill sets, they didn't want (the contract employees), and they wanted (to pay) low salaries,” said Manickam. “I know what kind of feedback I'm going to get from my clients. They need a carbon copy.”

BCC and similar software staffing companies are staff-augmentation firms, also known in the industry as “body shops.” The firms are essentially high-tech temp agencies, providing skilled computer workers to companies and governments on a per-project basis. They are generally staffed by foreign workers. The firms file immigration papers for skilled foreign workers, bringing them to the United States, and then placing them with clients. They also file green cards applications for foreign workers who are already in the United States.

In the case of the job Wallace and Perry had applied for, BCC was advertising it because it had filed immigration papers to get a green card for a foreign worker. A green card allows a foreigner to live and work in the United States indefinitely.

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram asked a software expert from Tyler Technologies Inc.'s MUNIS Division in Falmouth to review some of the requirements for the green card positions from a number of companies that applied for green cards through Maine.

The results were scattered, with some of the requirements seeming very reasonable and others not so, said Kirk Cameron, vice president of development at MUNIS. Cameron, a Canadian national, has been in the United States for 33 years and is a green card holder himself. He moved here at the age of 7 when his father got a job with General Electric.

It was sometimes hard to judge whether companies were trying to fill actual positions, or if they had tailored the requirements so only the green card applicants could fill the jobs, Cameron said.
In some cases, the requirements clearly matched a very specific software job, said Cameron. There were also some requirements that Cameron doubted a single programmer could fill.

“They're hitting so much stuff that no one can be good at them all,” he said. “In general, there are specialists. Here they're looking for it all in one.”

He pointed to one example where the requirements involved experience with programming languages and applications spanning every part of the software life span, from conceptualization through development, quality checking, and even customer support. And those requirements were over several computing platforms, said Cameron.

It's like going to a restaurant, said Cameron, and expecting the hostess to seat you, take your order, cook your meal, serve it, bus the dishes and then wash them.