H-1B Visas Are No Solution To IT Skills Shortage
March 11, 2013 Dan Burger
There is more than one perspective on H-1B visas that connect foreign IT specialists with jobs in United States. However, the biggest stick is not carried by those who would argue that what counts most is filling U.S. jobs with U.S. citizens. Since the economy was sawed off at the knees, experienced business computing professionals have been discarded and less expensive substitutes have been sought as part of the corporate globalization rules of the game.
It is bad now and it could get worse.
One of the reasons it looks threatening goes by the name of the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013. If enacted as written at this time, it would fatten the H-1B visa eligibility numbers from 65,000, the number chosen in 1990 when the program began, to 300,000.
The Information Technology Industry Council supports a significant increase in the number of H-1B visas. It has been banging on this door for years. ITIC includes in its membership IBM, Microsoft, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, SAP, Apple, and at least 40 more industry heavyweights. The argument ITIC continues to make is sort of a knife-to-the-throat appeal: that the tech industry needs an increase in H-1B visas or even more projects will be sourced to other countries. The reasoning behind this threat is that H-1B brings companies “the best and brightest” people from around the world, a necessary ingredient to remain competitive. Without it, corporations become starved for skills because, they claim, the talent pool is limited to only U.S. citizens filling U.S. jobs.
For more than 20 years, the tech industry has leaned on the H-1B program to hire foreign workers for IT jobs (engineering and scientific jobs are also included in this tech workers environment) that supposedly require hard-to-find advanced technical skills. Computer programmers and analysts, and system, network, and database administrators are included in the IT component of H-1B. For much of that time, it drew minimal attention. The job market, as we’ve come to know it during the past five years, has taken care of much of the H-1B anonymity.
Not only are those who are in opposition of increasing H-1B visas concerned about lost jobs, but also that H-1B creates lowers wages for those who could be filling those jobs. Whether H-1B has this effect on wages is argued on both sides.
Speaking for the ITIC in a House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subpanel hearing last week, Dean Garfield, CEO of the tech industry group, cited a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office that supported key discussion points: that the H-1B visa program does not undermine the prevailing wage for American workers and that it fuels innovation that keeps US-based tech companies at the top of the technology pyramid.
However, a study published February 28 by the Economic Policy Institute and conducted by Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California-Davis, calls into question the claims made by ITIC. According to the study, when comparing U.S.-born individuals of the same education and age, the H-1B individuals are “weaker than, or at most comparable to, the Americans in terms of salary, patent applications, Ph.D. dissertation awards, and quality of the doctoral program in which they studied.” And in the area of research and development, “the data show that the former foreign students are significantly less likely to work in R&D than the Americans.”
The question regarding H-1B workers being paid a below prevailing wages is also addressed in the study. It points out, for example, that despite claims that H-1B workers are hired because they possess technological skills that are in short supply, they are not paid according to their true market value. This leads to the accusation that industry support of the H-1B program is fueled primarily by interests in reducing labor costs.
Bob Langieri, a veteran of IT staffing services in the IBM i community, points out that tracking down a rare combination of skills is not the only factor when comparing H-1B to experienced IT professionals. Skills, including familiarity with specific tools, are overplayed by hiring managers, Langieri says. He receives daily emails from companies that are attempting to place workers into IT jobs. It is outsourcing without actually sending the job outside the US. H-1B workers play a role in this kind of labor market, Langieri says, and it is not exactly honest and above board as he sees it.
“Hiring managers are insecure about failing, so they only want to hire those whose resumes say they have the exact experience with a tool. ‘Skilled H1-Bs’ may have some level of exposure with the tool, but unfortunately think differently than American users and technologists . . . making projects take longer or miss the needed results that users really want. They (the H-1Bs) see something as red; we see the same thing as purple. Purple may have red in it, but it is not red. [In the US] we have adapted from the most basic technologies and advanced through the more modern languages for 40-plus years. Give experienced American technologists the opportunity to learn new skills and now you will have someone who understands where the system came from originally and how the new tool can make it better. We sometimes call this ‘wisdom.'”
Alerts such as this are not getting the deserved attention, perhaps because industry organizations drown them out with campaigns that focus the topic on global competition and technical innovation hinging on the amazing skills that only become available with H-1B workers.
Rick Flagler, a computer science instructor (RPG and DB2/SQL) at Keene State College in New Hampshire with a decades-long work history in the IBM midrange, says there’s a warning that should be heard by politicians as they discuss policies like the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013.
“I think the idea of attracting skilled technical people to the USA sounds good on the surface, but there are dark sides,” he says. Advocating H-1B and outsourcing IT to other countries is effectively “allowing our population to opt-out of this education. In order to compete globally, we need more U.S. citizens to receive higher (or at least better) education, not less. I think we should hold the H-1B level stable, wean ourselves from the program in the long run, and rely increasingly on U.S. workers, hopefully drawing more on our college students.”
Jim Buck, an IBM i-centric instructor at Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin, claims the H-1B efforts are a short-sighted solution to a current labor pool problem that companies could solve without H-1B.
“The problem,” Buck says, “is that companies are not involved with colleges. They need to see colleges as a resource and set up communications with colleges to emphasize the type of training want their job candidates to have.”
A combination of classroom education and on the job experience is a much better plan that brings value to the US and its workers, Buck says.
“In Germany, for example, students go to college for a set number of weeks and then they go to internships for a set number of weeks. They go back and forth. The internships are paid by the participating companies, who get to groom students while they are in college. And the students get more than a classroom education.
“I know what’s happening in the world. I work with a lot of companies on behalf of Gateway Technical and I do consulting work that takes me inside IBM i shops. A few are very proactive, but most say they don’t have the resources to train. They expect to have employees fully trained when they get them. They don’t want to invest in training them. Somewhere this all got disconnected. Companies are not investing in youth of America. They are just looking to fix a problem today.”
The ITIC and other tech-related industry organizations have lobbied Congress to raise the yearly H-1B cap for years, while claiming major science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) labor shortages require it. And it has continued to make such claims in the years since. The Economic Policy Institute study contradicts this. It claims “no study, other than those sponsored by the industry, has ever confirmed a shortage.”
Studies that are paid for by corporations have predetermined conclusions that independent studies reveal as not based on solid statistical evidence, yet they are heavily promoted. And the EPI report also claims more than 80 percent of H-1B visa holders are hired at wages below wages paid to non-H-1B workers for comparable positions, noting that if H-1B workers have special skill sets they should be making a premium wage over their job competitors and finding that is not the case.
The Economic Policy Institute study can be viewed at this link.