Editorials

Don’t make N.C. taxpayers pay to outsource tech jobs

The Observer editorial board

The IT and consulting company Cognizant Technology Solutions will add 300 jobs in Charlotte, thanks in part to an incentives package of over $2.1 million from the city, county and state. Pictured here (center) is the company’s president and CEO, Francisco D’Souza.
The IT and consulting company Cognizant Technology Solutions will add 300 jobs in Charlotte, thanks in part to an incentives package of over $2.1 million from the city, county and state. Pictured here (center) is the company’s president and CEO, Francisco D’Souza. Courtesy of Nasdaq

Nearly two years ago, we urged North Carolina lawmakers to stop companies from hiring foreign nationals for jobs created in exchange for state tax breaks and other economic development perks.

Today, however, companies remain free to hire foreign workers for such taxpayer-subsidized jobs. State law remains silent on the overlap between economic development incentives and companies’ increasing reliance on H-1B visa workers.

As a report in Sunday’s Observer showed, that’s an increasingly problematic silence.

Business writer Deon Roberts reported that companies’ visa applications for Charlotte positions rose 39 percent from the year prior – a bigger surge than the national increase of roughly 25 percent. Employers sought more than 16,500 H-1B visas in the Charlotte metro area, many of them in the technology sector.

Many of those jobs don’t involve taxpayer subsidies. But the state in 2014 gave Cognizant, a New Jersey firm that ranks among the nation’s biggest tech outsourcers, $5 million in incentives over 12 years for hiring 150 workers in Charlotte and 350 elsewhere in the state.

In the 2015 fiscal year, the firm submitted 2,593 H-1B applications in Charlotte – the most any firm sought in the city.

Is Cognizant hiring Americans only for its 500 state-subsidized jobs? Even if so, do we want to incentivize an outfit that then turns around and brings in five times as many foreign workers?

Companies say they need visa workers because they can’t find enough qualified Americans. But that’s clearly not the full story. Visa holders, many of them Indian, serve far more cheaply than U.S. citizens. Some American tech workers facing impending layoffs have to train their foreign replacements on their way out.

We get it. Companies (including the Observer’s parent company, McClatchy Corp.) turn to visa workers to help the bottom line – and, at times, because they can’t find good candidates otherwise.

Understandable. Just don’t ask taxpayers to help.

The story in Sunday’s Observer prompted the wife of one laid-off Charlotte tech worker to call the editorial board and plead for more coverage of the H-1B visa phenomenon.

“It’s a huge problem for this country,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because her husband is seeking work. “Some people we know, they’ve taken lower-paying service jobs just so they’ll have a job. They’ve had to tighten their belts to the point where it’s unbelievable.”

Congress must decide on reforms for the H-1B visa program. But why shouldn’t the state at least limit the percentage of foreign workers who can be hired in jobs tied to state incentives packages?

Voters are turning to outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump precisely because they don’t feel heard on matters such as this.

American workers have lost so much ground already. They shouldn’t have to subsidize visa workers’ jobs – and their own layoffs – as well.

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