• Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

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The Mess Comes Home

It’s unclear whether staffing firms like Infosys are using the H-1B visa for the reasons it was originally intended for. The H-1B visa was created in 1990 to “bring in high-skilled workers who could complement the skills of US workers,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “The sense at the time was that there were growing industries in the United States in areas that the US wanted to develop to be globally competitive, but there weren’t necessarily enough US workers who [were] qualified and ready to fill those jobs.” Whether the work that companies outsource to firms like Infosys is aligned with the original intention of the H-1B visa program is somewhat up for debate. 

On one hand, the jobs often require college degrees and some technical knowledge; on the other, many of the Infosys employees interviewed by The Verge saw the positions as menial and certainly entry-level.

Infosys has run into trouble with visa rules. In 2013, the company settled a lawsuit with the US Department of Justice, which alleged that Infosys had obtained visas for its foreign workers through “systematic fraud,” specifically by bringing workers to the US under a B-1 visa instead of an H-1B visa. The distinction matters because while B-1 visa holders are allowed to enter the country and attend meetings, they aren’t actually allowed to perform work in the United States.

But Infosys’ three-decade reliance on the H-1B visas came under siege during the Trump administration, which instituted new rules in 2020 targeting the visa program. And while those rules were struck down by the courts, the Trump administration did drag their feet when it came to approving new visas for Infosys and other competitors, a trend that only reversed when Biden took office. “There certainly was a lot more scrutiny being applied to H-1B applications, and that was particularly true of some of the outsourcing firms,” said Gelatt.

According to Infosys, the Trump era visa restrictions were tangential to the company’s expansion in the US. “We are continuing to do what we are doing in spite of the fact that there is a new administration in the US,” Kumar told The Verge. Instead, Kumar said, the change was driven by Infosys’ clients, who wanted their contractors to be closer to home.

To meet their aggressive hiring goals, rather than hiring expensive experienced engineers, Infosys returned to their roots and invested in training. “Since 2017, we’ve been very aggressively growing as a company, so we need talent,” Kumar said. “The only way you can get talent is to build it if there is not enough available in the market.” The training isn’t cheap; Infosys spends $25,830 on every employee they hire from college, Kumar told The Verge, which funds a formal two-month training program, as well as project-based training for an additional three months. 

Once employees join the company, they then enter a corporate environment where moving up the ladder is not only allowed but encouraged. As an example, Kumar cited more lucrative consulting positions, which he said were often filled internally.

This flexibility, according to Kumar, is part of what allows the outsourcing firm to embody the American dream. “If we want to create social upward mobility in jobs, we will have to create these reskilling bridges, so people can start at the bottom, but they can transition to high potential jobs,” Kumar said.

The very same flexibility, Infosys employees say, is part of what makes the company a challenging and, in some cases, disappointing place to work for. One employee, Stuart, was hired by the company to be a business analyst, and Infosys even paid him to attend a short-term training program to learn how to be one. “It was very hands-on. It was enjoyable,” Stuart said of the training. “I learned a lot. I felt excited to become a business analyst.”

But that enthusiasm faded when Stuart finished his training and was promptly put on the Bench. “Eventually, you see people bringing in a deck of cards to work,” Stuart said. “There’s no supervision; there’s nothing to do; there’s no projects to get on, but we’re required to be there.” So when a position finally opened up, Stuart took it, even though it wasn’t the business analyst role he had trained for. It was an IT support desk project, a position he described as “being a call center employee.” 

The project gave him steady work, but paradoxically, Stuart found that the new project made it harder to look for a job other than at Infosys. “I now have nominally two years of experience in IT, but I definitely don’t have two years of business analyst experience,” Stuart said. “People don’t view me as having enough experience.”

Ultimately, Stuart and other Infosys employees questioned whether the flexibility Infosys offered was actually a good thing. “People sometimes talk about a job versus a career, and right now, I have a job,” Stuart said. “A career is: ‘I have a vision of this leads to that leads to that, and it’s something that I want to do for the next 40 years.’”

For some, rather than revitalizing the American dream, Infosys might instead be strangling it. Kumar acknowledged that Infosys’ model of a career might look different from a career where workers could expect job stability but said that this shift was an inevitable consequence of technological innovation.

“We are out of this era where for the first 20-plus years, we went to school, and the next 50 years or so, we went to a corporate job, and we recycle everything we did in the first 20 years for the next 50 years,” Kumar told The Verge. “In the digital age, when skills are so short-lived, you should be on a lifelong learning continuum all your life.”