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The Job Machine 

Global Cleveland wants to put the region to work. Who gets the jobs isn't clear

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A representative from Employment Connection, a job-placement agency run by the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County, says companies should seek workers locally before beating the international bushes.

"We have the talent locally," says the employee, who asked not to be named. "But do we have enough to fill these jobs? Probably not."

Harry Weller, like other Global Cleveland supporters, stresses that some local IT companies have turned away business because they didn't have the talent to do the work. He mentions Brandmuscle, a local marketing company, and the software developer PreEmptive Solutions, which has an office in Greater Cleveland.

"IT companies here were turning business away because they couldn't get the manpower," he says. "The data is available that talented, professional immigrants will start businesses. Maybe not right off the boat, but eventually."

Local unease over the possible influx of immigrant workers so far is difficult to gauge.

Scene contacted several area small-business owners and IT community leaders for this story. None agreed to be quoted on the record, but all of them expressed apprehension at the prospect of courting an immigrant workforce.

According to the director of an influential Ohio-wide IT group, 75,000 IT workers are currently employed in Greater Cleveland — what he calls the state's "greatest concentration" of IT professionals. Any movement to attract H-1Bs could cost some of them their jobs, he says, adding that it will depend on where their employer's heart is.

"Progressive Insurance could say, 'We're now all about the bottom line, so forget hiring the American fresh out of Ohio State and paying him $45,000 a year; we can get a bunch of guys from India, petition for their visa, and pay them $22,000,' which is a lot more money than what they would be getting if they stayed in India," says the director, who spoke with Scene on the condition of anonymity.

Incidentally, Mayfield Heights-based Progressive Insurance — which has no apparent stake in Global Cleveland — refused to speak to Scene about its use of H-1Bs. Rare is the corporation that will go on the record about the subject, but some insight can be found at myvisajobs.com.

According to the site, Progressive — one of Northeast Ohio's largest employers — has hired 1,100 H-1Bs over the last ten years. Cleveland Clinic, the region's largest employer, has hired 1,700 H-1Bs in that span. Case Western Reserve University also uses H-1B workers.

Based on figures culled from myvisajobs.com, roughly 4,000 to 6,000 H-1Bs currently work in Greater Cleveland.

Meanwhile, another large Cleveland employer, KeyBank, has sought in recent years to transfer between 200 and 400 American IT jobs offshore with help from an Indian firm. Ultimately, only about 70 IT jobs were eliminated, though Key has trimmed 1,700 employees from its payroll over the last two years. Rumors persist that more IT jobs will be lost, while Key officials maintain no such decisions have been made.

In Cincinnati, a company called Tata Consultancy Services of India has established a hub in the suburb of Milford. According to WashTech, Tata has a track record of bringing Indian citizens to America, where they are sourced to corporations that don't want to deal with the federal red tape that comes with getting H-1B approvals on their own, or allow their use of H-1Bs to be made public.

According to myvisajobs.com, Tata ranks 20th out of the top 100 American companies that have utilized H-1Bs since 2001. At any given time, Tata has 8,000 such workers on the job in the U.S.; by comparison, the nation's top H-1B employer, Microsoft, has roughly 35,000. (Tata has no connection to Global Cleveland, according to Shah.)

But what makes some IT pros even more nervous about Tata's presence in the Buckeye state is how Ohio has laid out the red carpet to get them here: Tata was lured to Cincinnati in 2007 by an $18 million job-creation tax break.

"What a slap in the face to the American worker," say Les French, director of WashTech. The $18 million could be clawed back if Tata does not meet certain requirements, such as hiring American citizens, according to the Ohio Department of Development.

To those who have been replaced by H-1Bs, a slap in the face has sometimes been followed with a punch to the gut.

"I have heard several people say that [they were replaced by an H-1B worker], especially the older guys in the field," says Troy Davis, head of the Programmers Guild, a Cincinnati IT union. "The most angry are the ones who have been displaced by an H-1B and then trained the foreigner — the H-lB holder — to do their job."

But the Ohio-based IT pros interviewed for this story seem to have accepted immigrant labor as their industry's inescapable reality. (Numerous attempts to reach Cleveland's Programmers Guild were unsuccessful.)

The heart of the problem, according to one director from an Ohio IT group that has an office in the area: Cleveland itself.

"There are Americans who can do the job, but they're in Boston, Austin, San Francisco, Silicon Valley," he says. "Cleveland can't get these guys, because [corporations] can't convince them to come live here."

John Lasker is a freelance writer based in Columbus.

More by John Lasker

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