The Fate of STEM PhDs (and More)

My post this evening will mainly involve a new report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) on how well STEM PhDs are faring in the job market, both short- and long-term.  But first I’ll bring in a couple of news items, and then connect them to the NSF, with the common theme of spinning almost any kind of news in a manner aimed at implanting in the American consciousness a positive view of expanded immigration policies.

So, first and foremost, congratulations to Kira Kazantsev, Miss America 2015.  She was my daughter’s classmate in high school and even junior high school, and though I’ve only seen her a few times, it has always been clear that she is headed for big things, and deservedly so.

But I was a little irritated to see the manner in which Ms. Kazantsev’s victory was announced by FWD.us:  “Did you know? The new Miss America 2015 is a first generation American and daughter of Russian immigrants.”  What possible relevance can that have?  It’s just PR indoctrination.  I’ve been critical of FWD.us in this blog before for their manipulative ways, as many of you know.  By the way, FWD.us is hiring interns for such work, which is troubling.

Maybe I need my own PR firm, which would make a proud announcement, “Did you know that H-1B critic Norm Matloff is the son of a Lithuanian immigrant?”

My second item before turning to the NSF report is this job-seekers advice column by Laszlo Bock, Senior VP of People Operations (read “HR”) at Google.  (I learned of this from an alert reader, thanks.)   The advice itself is good, but rather at odds with the Google/Bock stance on the labor market.  Bock writes

The toughest part is that for 15 years, I’ve continued to see the same mistakes [in re'sume's] made again and again by candidates, any one of which can eliminate them from consideration for a job. What’s most depressing is that I can tell from the resumes that many of these are good, even great, people. But in a fiercely competitive labor market, hiring managers don’t need to compromise on quality. All it takes is one small mistake and a manager will reject an otherwise interesting candidate.

Huh?  Does Bock work for the same Google that insists there is a tech labor shortage, so severe that it must hire lots of H-1B visa workers?  Indeed, Bock testified to Congress in support of expanding the H-1B program.  In fact, in his testimony he talked about Google being in competition with other firms, here and abroad, for talented workers — a huge contrast to his statement above that even great workers are competing with each other for jobs, rather than employers competing to hire them.

Bock’s testimony, by the way, is laced with the term foreign-born in referring to the H-1Bs, rather than foreign.  I explained in an earlier post, titled “When Did Foreign Students Become ‘International’?”, that even this is calculated PR; nothing is left to chance.

A couple of days ago, a prominent journalist for whom I have enormous respect said to me, “The H-1B program has strong mainstream support.”  The above incidents show how such support is created by deft PR work and lots of money.

Which brings me, at last, to the new NSF report.  Keep in mind that the NSF has always been pro-H-1B, and it shows here:  The press release headline reads, “Unemployment for Doctoral Scientists and Engineers Below National Average in 2013.”  Wonderful!  But definitely misleading, for a number of reasons.  For example, those who bother to read the actual report will find that the NSF is counting someone as “employed” even if they are working just part-time.

Moreover, the comparison to the national average is inapropriate, since highly-educated people tend to be resourceful types, who will find some kind of job.  But WHAT kind?  The report actually answers that question, and there the picture is not so rosy.  Let’s look at computer science (CS), both because it’s my field and because it is the field with the largest number of H-1Bs.

Begin with Table 2, which shows that nearly 7% of CS PhDs are either working part-time or are unemployed (but seeking employment).  That’s a rather high rate, considering that the industry PR people say CS is such a red-hot field, and in light of the fact that the PR people often point to the high proportion of CS doctorates granted to foreign students by U.S. universities as a reason for hiring H-1Bs.

Things then get worse in the second half of the same table, where there is a breakdown by age.  I’ve emphasized many times that one of the major reasons employers like the H-1B program so much is that enables them to hire young H-1Bs instead of older (age 35+) Americans, and sadly, the table shows employment for PhDs declines markedly with age.

Table 3 compares, among other things, Americans to workers with temporary work visas (H-1B, L-1, F-1/OPT, J-1 etc.).  Look at the dramatic difference!  The percentage who are either working part-time or are unemployed is over 12% for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, but under 4% for the work visa people.  (Most of the unemployed in the latter group are presumably F-1s.)  A large part of this discrepancy is likely due to the age effect, but it is compelling in any case.

Finally, go to another NSF report, in data titled “Table 32-2, Involuntarily Out-of-Field Rate among Doctoral Scientists and Engineers, by Occupation: 2013,”  There we see the remarkable statistic that 11.3% of CS PhDs are involuntarily working outside the field.  Again, consider this in the context I described above — CS is supposed to be a hot seller’s market for employment, especially for PhDs.

The reality is that getting a doctorate in CS is overkill for most nonacademic jobs.  An HP manager told me, “The ‘sweet spot’ is the master’s degree,” and an Intel recruiter remarked, “Intel is not very interested in PhDs.”  Indeed, an HR person at Google told me that CS PhDs hired at Google typically get Software Engineer titles, just like bachelor’s-level workers.  And as I report in my Migration Letters paper, a study commissioned by the Computing Research Association (a consortium of university CS Departments across North America) found that the job market for CS PhDs is tough and will continue to be so.

I’ve often mentioned that a 1989 internal NSF report forecast (and spoke approvingly) that an influx of foreign doctoral students would keep PhD wages down, making doctoral study unattractive to Americans.  That is exactly what has occurred, as noted in the congressionally-commissioned NRC report in 2001, and put bluntly by Cisco Systems Vice President for Research Douglas Comer:  “…a Ph.D. in computer science is probably a financial loser in both the short and long terms, says Douglas Comer”  (Science Careers, April 11, 2008).

If having a PhD doesn’t add much value in CS jobs, then why does the industry hire them?   As noted, they actually don’t hire so many as they want the public to believe.  But the answer also lies in another point I often make about the attractiveness of the H-1B visa to employers — the visa (coupled with sponsorship for a green card, typical in firms like Cisco, Google etc.) renders the worker IMMOBILE, a status of tremendous value, as the employer doesn’t want an engineer leaving for another firm in the midst of an urgent project.  This is often pitched to employers by immigration attorneys as the advantage of hiring foreign students; the ad at the site http://hiref-1students.com/ should be required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the real dynamics of the H-1B visa and employer-sponsored green cards.

Once again, Senator Grassley’s comment about H-1B applies:  “No one should be fooled.”

Gaming the College Admissions System, Big Data Style

The current issue of Bloomberg Businessweek has a provocative article titled, “How to Get Into an Ivy League College—Guaranteed.”  No, this is not some commercial on late-night cable TV, paired with an ad for the slice it/dice it knife.  Instead, it’s about entrepreneur Steven Ma, who runs a booming business on how to scientifically game the system for admission to the nation’s top universities.

A few posts ago, when I wrote about Joe Green, president of the ruthless lobbying group FWD.us, I confessed that I had already had a pre-existing bias against Green back when he was in high school. He and some classmates had been the subject of a CNN documentary on the pressure on kids applying to elite colleges. To me, the students came across as cynically desiring the prestige these schools bring, rather than a wish to experience the intellectual stimulation imparted by world-class leading professors.

I am certainly not implying that most students in prestigious universities are like the ones in the CNN show, and I think the admissions officers usually manage to select students who genuinely add something to the academic, social and cultural atmosphere of their institutions.  But clearly these gatekeepers are having to scramble, what with the likes of Mr. Ma on their heels.

Ma simply applies statistical principles (call it “machine learning” if you insist) to data on applicants and their success or failure in getting into the school of their desires.  The more data he has, the more powerful his predictions are, so he’s constantly improving an already-strong track record.

Skeptical?  Surely the admissions officers don’t make decisions in such a formulaic way, you say?  Let me tell you a little story.

Way back when I was in grad school, I was employed as a Teaching Assistant, and part of my duties was to help grade exams.  One day I was grading papers, and an undergraduate happened to be in the office I shared with a fellow grad student.  The undergrad watched me grade a particular problem, say Problem 3, for a while, and after a few minutes he got to the point at which he could predict with remarkable accuracy what score I would give on Problem 3 to each student.  I was quite taken aback to learn that I had been grading on the basis of some formula that even I myself had not been aware of. Thus, in reading the BW article now, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that admissions officers at these selective schools are also unconsciously using formulas, all while thinking that they are evaluating each applicant individually.

And maybe some of it IS conscious.  I remember a friend of mine in the South San Francisco Bay Area telling me about 10 years ago that word had been circulating among his social set that Stanford was placing a major premium on applicants who had done well in a debate team.  Supposedly someone in the admissions office had leaked the word.  I’ll never know whether that rumor was accurate or not, but based on the successes my friend cited of kids acting on that tip, it may well have been legit.

One can hardly blame Mr. Ma, who is simply applying his quantitative skills to  a very lucrative market in the Asian-immigrant community.  There are many such companies, such as IvyMax, one that I pass by all the time in Fremont. (The Chinese name 飛達 means “fly to achieve”.)  Ma also is engaged in admirable philanthropic work.  However, I do blame the Tiger Mom type among his clients, as I have written here before.  Which brings me to one more story:

One Saturday in March a few years ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she participated in the local Science Olympiad.  One event consisted of building a catapult.  As I was watching, a pleasant fellow parent from another school  struck up a conversation with me.  “Which one is your child?”, he asked.  I pointed to my daughter, and mentioned that she and her teammates were high school seniors.  The other parent was dumbfounded that they were seniors, asking me “Then why are they here?”  Joe Green would know immediately what that parent meant:  It was March, way past the deadline for submitting admissions applications, so participating in that competition was “useless” from that parent’s point of view. To him, participating in the contest was simply a cynical act to build up a re’sume’ that college admissions committees would find attractive.  But I answered simply, though probably with an edge in my voice, “They’re here because they love science,”  The other parent recovered from his faux pas, and said, “Yes, that’s a good reason.”

This gaming of the system encourages cynicism among our young people, leading to even deeper cynicism when they become adults, Joe Green being a case in point. And I’m sure this article about Mr. Ma is causing much hand wringing among admissions officers; I don’t envy them.

Radio Shack Sales Clerk Wanted; Physics PhD Helpful

Yesterday’s Washington Post ran a piece titled, “Policymakers Hail STEM Education as a Strong Foundation, Pushing Innovation.”  As I’ve warned before, reach for your Skeptic’s Hat whenever you see a politician, academic, industry-funded researcher, industry lobbyist, immigration attorney and the like use the word innovation in a STEM context.

This crowd (discreetly referred to as “policymakers, advocates and executives” in the article, to be referred to as “policymakers and allies,” PAs, below)  generally has some hidden agenda lurking—expanded work visa policy, increased funding for academia and so on.

My (skeptic’s) hat is off to the Post for warning the reader of trouble, right there in the lead sentence of the piece (though sadly, not in the headline).  A synopsis of the article is this imaginary conversation:

PAs:  There is a natiuonal STEM labor shortage.

naysayer academics:  No, just look at the numbers, e.g. the flat wages and the percentage of STEM degree holders not working in STEM.

PAs:  Yes, but a knowledge of STEM is helpful in many non-STEM jobs.

One can’t argue with that second statement by the PAs.  I know that my math background helps inform lots of things that I do in life that don’t seem outwardly mathematical.  But the title of my post here, “Radio Shack Sales Clerk Wanted; Physics PhD Helpful,” is meant to convey the fact that the PAs’ image of STEM degree holders happily applying their background in some non-STEM profession, in an economy-boosting manner, can be highly misleading.  On the contrary, the STEM-er in question may actually be quite unhappy in his/her job, and it may be an enormous waste of economic resources.

Actually, all of this is basically political rationalization on the PAs’ part.  In order to explain, I’ll first give you a brief history of the shortage shouting.  Later I’ll return to the issue of tragic waste of STEM resources.

The tech industry, led by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) began in 1997 by claiming a labor shortage in the computer science field, which they aimed to leverage an expansion by Congress of the yearly cap on new H-1B visas.  They began the by-now time-honored theme of “the solution is more computer science education in the long term, but more H-1Bs for now.”  The plan worked like a charm. President Clinton ordered the Department of Commerce to play ball with ITAA (I used to have a copy of an actual memo from him to this effect, now lost, sadly).  Sure enough, DOC then produced its own report, very similar to the ITAA’s (though, interestingly, pretty much recanted by DOC a couple of years later).  Congress then nearly doubled the H-1B cap in late 1998.

But the increase was temporary, and the industry wanted even more.  They realized that a bigger umbrella would serve as a more powerful lobbying tool, so they broadened their claim to STEM in general.  (I have the impression that it was the industry lobbyists who actually coined the STEM acronym, though I haven’t been able to confirm it.)   They had no trouble selling this claim to Congress, the press, and the populace, playing the Education Card (citing international test scores in STEM, etc.).

The ploy worked for a number of years, until researchers Lindsay Lowell and Hal Salzman decided to check whether the STEM-shortage emperor was clothed; they found that he was not.  None of the PAs’ claims really panned out.  More recently, the authors (joined by Daniel Kuehn), did a more detailed study, again finding that shortage claim was not supported by the data, and that the H-1B program was adversely impacting wages.  They found, for instance, the IT wages in 2013 were still at their 1998 level.  Recently the Census Bureau added to such research by announcing that most STEM graduates are in non-STEM jobs.

And even the Microsoft-funded Tony Carnevale of Georgetown University found that the unemployment rates for new computer science and information systems grads was shockingly high (about 9% and 14%, respectively), given the tech industry’s shortage claims.  As I’ve explained before, there is more to these rates than meets the eye—not everyone who has a CS degree is fit to be a programmer—but it certainly undercut the lobbyists’ claims.

What were the PAs to do?  Their quest for an expanded H-1B visa program (and a fast-track green card program for foreign STEM grad students at U.S. schools) depended crucially on their claims of a STEM labor shortage.  So they came up with the spin that we see in the Post article:   a STEM education is helpful in non-STEM professions:   In fact, if my memory is correct, it was Carnevale who first offered this explanation. The Post piece quotes university president Freeman Hrabowski, who supports H-1B expansion so strongly that he has discussed how to sell it to the American people, expressing the same view rationalizing the surplus of STEM degrees.  (I’ve written elsewhere why universities are so anxious to attract foreign students.  It’s much more than simply that many pay full freight.)

All this is of supreme importance.  Those of you who listened to yesterday’s broadcast of the Marketplace radio show, in which DOC chief Penny Pritzker said we have a STEM labor shortage, must have wondered how she could be so poorly-informed. Had the interviewer asked her how she reconciled her statement with the studies showing the contrary, I believe that at least part of her answer would have been that many STEM graduates work in non-STEM fields.

This theme was already common in government circles as of 2011, I found at an invitation-only research conference in 2011.  The attendees, about two dozen in number, included policymakers from relevant government agencies.  Many of these policymakers were high-level, key people.

The contrast was interesting:  Roughly speaking, the academic researchers had one point of view, that of being skeptical of a STEM labor shortage, while the government policymakers generally took the opposite position, that either we had a shortage or if not, then having a surplus was beneficial anyway.  I’d been researching the H-1B issue since 1993, and have been a political junkie since age 12, if not earlier.  But even I was not prepared for the stark difference between the two groups.  I was particularly struck by the comment of one of the attendees, who when challenged about his claim of a STEM shortage, frankly replied that he must implement what comes from “the top,” meaning the President.

(I urge you to read my report on the conference.  Some readers of this blog were present; if any of you saw things differently, please let me know, and I will post your comments here, anonymously.  I believe that my report is consistent with the official report.)

The attendees from government had already coined a new (somewhat Orwellian) term, diversion, for the STEM people in non-STEM jobs, and were trying to spin diversion as a good thing.  Quite a bit of the discussion was on this topic.

One government analyst, for instance, pointed to molecular biology PhDs now working on Wall Street, covering the biotech industry for investment firms.  The fact that this was a questionable return to the huge government and other investment in the education of these scientists didn’t bother him.

Another government researcher in attendance, a young woman not far out of her own engineering PhD work, claimed that many people with STEM PhDs really DON’T WANT to work in STEM.  Though I have no doubt she was sincere about her own case—I got the impression that she had pursued a PhD largely due to parental pressure—I don’t think her claim is generally true.  Most people don’t go through the huge time commitments, expense and opportunity costs of a PhD program unless they find their field to be captivating.  I submit that most “diversion” is involuntary (and that most of the “diverted” don’t even have a Wall Street salary to ease their sorrows and frustration).

In short, the “diversion” concept, and the STEM-helps-you-help-Radio-Shack notion, are rationalizations, formed to excuse what the PAs want:  expansion of the H-1B and green card programs, as we saw with Sec. Pritzker.

So there is indeed a human toll to having a STEM surplus, and as mentioned, a terrible waste of precious resources.

What Do You (Falsely) Take for Granted Regarding U.S. Outsourcing?

The loss of manufacturing from the U.S. costs American jobs but at least brings big cost savings to American consumers, right?  And anyway, the U.S. is too advanced an economy to do its own manufacturing, right?  Well, not so fast.  That first assumption is false in most cases, and the second is questionable.

What prompted me to devote this evening’s blog post to this topic is an article, “The Human Toll of Offshoring,” that ran in the New York Times on Labor Day.  It in turn was triggered by a new book, Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local, and Helped Save an American Town, by Beth Macy, a longtime reporter for the Roanoke (VA) Times.  An alert reader of this blog called my attention to the NYT article, though I had heard Macy interviewed on NPR a few weeks ago.

Sadly, even the NYT buys into myth that offshoring brings U.S. consumers big cost savings.  Generally, this is not the case.  The typical profit margin for manufactured goods is so small that the savings in labor costs accrued from offshoring make a big difference proportionally to the manufacturer, but the difference in consumer price is small, as the labor costs are a small portion of the overall cost.  More generally, labor cost savings don’t bring big reductions in retail price.  For instance, my UC Davis colleague Phil Martin, an agricultural economist, once calculated that consumers save about a nickel per head of lettuce grown with unauthorized-immigrant labor.  Negligible savings for the consumer, but the growers win big.  Labor is a small part of retail price even in some service industries; Card and Krueger, writing in support of raising the minimum wage, found that a 19% increase in labor costs led to only a 2% rise in fast-food prices.

Of course, the politicians’ and unions’ favorite boogey man in such discussions is China.  Yet an investment analyst estimated that Chinese labor forms only 2-5% of the retail price of an iPhone.  I’ve seen other similar analyses.  A 2011 analysis by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) stated that “…labor accounts for a small portion of a product’s manufacturing costs.”  Since the NYT article is about the furniture industry, note that the profit margin in that industry is said to be 2%.  If one combines this fact with the BCG statement, one sees that the savings to consumers is very small.  Again, remember that it is the manufacturer who wins from offshoring, not the consumer.

Significantly, a BCG survey found that Americans are willing to pay considerable premiums for products made in the U.S.  In fact, the amount they are willing to pay extra actually exceeds the small savings they actually get from offshoring.  Apple is moving some of its Mac production back onshore, presumably at least in part from this consideration.  BCG claims that this is a coming trend, as does The Economist.

So, the economics professor cited in the NYT article (requoted from the Macy book, and endorsed by the NYT reporter) seems to be rather off base in his statement:  “In reality, we shouldn’t be making bedroom furniture anymore in the United States. Shouldn’t we instead be trying to educate these workers’ kids to get them into high-skilled jobs and away from what’s basically an archaic industry?”  Moreover, his apparent attitude that all Americans should get an education and pursue one of the professions is of course absurd on its face, and  frankly, is amazingly naive.  Should more Americans go into the science research field, for example?  No, they can’t get jobs as it is, as a National Institutes of Health study found a couple of years ago.

Moreover, the NIH stated that foreign-worker programs were part of the problem.  Importation of foreign labor is just like offshoring, really; whether cheap labor is used abroad or brought to the U.S., the losers are U.S. citizen and permanent resident workers.  UC Berkeley economics professor Clair Brown and her coauthors have found that the H-1B work visa program negatively impacts American engineers, and the congressionally commissioned NRC report found that H-1B was adversely impacting IT wages.  (See references on NIH, Brown and the NRC in my Migration Letters paper.)

Apologists for offshoring, such as the NYT’s Tom Friedman, try to excuse all this not only by the old “the labor costs savings are passed on to the consumer” canard, but also by saying that the workers abroad will be enabled to afford American products, thus creating U.S. jobs.  That is true to some extent, but the benefit is probably not as great as the loss.  Friedman, for instance, has noted that software development work offshored to India is compensated by the fact that the Indian software “factories” use Carrier brand air conditioners.  But the extra Carrier sales arising from this are probably not going to result in Carrier hiring more engineers; the engineering is largely a fixed cost.  So, we are losing engineering jobs in this scenario but MAYBE gaining some manufacturing jobs (assuming those are not in India, which would be counter to Carrier’s best interests)–not a very good trade, is it?

Is the solution to place restrictions on globalization, in the form of imposing tariffs on goods and tightening policy on importing foreign labor?  As I’ve emphasized before, those questions should be for the American people to decide–based on full information, not on misleading NYT articles.

 

Bibliography on Research Regarding H-1B and Related Issues

A couple of months ago, I wrote up a draft of an annotated bibliography of research papers on H-1B, employment-based green cards and claims of STEM labor shortages.  I sent the draft to a few people for comment, preferring not to make it public until I had fleshed the document out some more.

I’ve now got the bibliography ready for public consumption.  Again, note that it is annotated; each item contains my comments as to what I consider the salient content of the research, including flaws in the work.  In light of this latter point, note too that selection of a research paper for this bibliography does not imply that I endorse the work; if some research is flawed but widely cited, I tend to include it.

I do have more items to add, and will do so when I have time.  Suggestions for additions are welcome.

The document is available at heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/AnnBib.pdf  Happy reading!  I think that even those of you who know the literature well will find some surprises.

Joe Green of Fwd.us Has a Relapse of His Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Joe Green is President of Fwd.us, a group founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to advocate for relief to unauthorized immigrants, and expansion of the H-1B work visa and employer-sponsored green card programs.  Green was a friend of  Zuckerberg at Harvard.

Some of you may be surprised to know that I first heard of Green when he was a senior in high school.  A TV documentary ran at the time on how difficult it was for kids to get admitted to top colleges, and Green was one of those profiled.  I mention this as full disclosure, as I recall that I found the kids’ attitudes to be very cynical, more interested in prestige than in a desire to learn.  I’m saying, in other words, that this has prejudiced me against him somewhat.

Yet even without that, Green’s famous gaffe in Fwd.us advocating that the tech industry muscle its way around DC, would have been enough to set up a permanent red flag in my mind:

We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals…We have individuals with a lot of money. If deployed properly this can have huge influence in the current campaign finance environment…

Green later issued an apology, but now he’s said something much worse, if more subtle.  Asked why the tech industry wants to hire more foreign workers at a time when Microsoft, Cisco, HP, Intel, IBM and so on are laying off Americans, Green explained that the foreign workers are better than the Americans.  I’ll come back to this issue of worker quality shortly, but the salient point is that Green is admitting that the industry is firing U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and replacing them by H-1Bs.

Other than the special subcategory called H-1B Dependent Employers, it is perfectly legal to replace American workers by H-1Bs (and for that matter, to hire the H-1Bs in lieu of Americans in the first place).  But this was a highly, highly impolitic statement for Green to make, as it completely undermines the industry’s claim that it hires the H-1Bs only as a last resort, when no qualified Americans can be found for the jobs.  In this case, the Americans were qualified by definition, as they had in fact been doing the jobs before the layoffs.

Indeed, if an actual tech CEO, say Zuckerberg, had made such a statement, he might encounter problems getting his/her foreign workers green cards, as the latter do require the employer to show that no qualified Americans could be found for the jobs.

Now, what about that issue of quality that Green brought up?  His statement, “The difference between someone who’s truly great and just sort of okay is really huge,” is definitely correct.  I’ve often said the same thing, and once again must interject that I strongly support facilitating the immigration of “the best and the brightest” from around the world..  But is his claim, that weaker Americans are being replaced by stronger H-1Bs, really true?  Even one of the interviewers asked Green, “Are you saying that all of the [Americans] who are laid off are not talented and all the people from these other countries are valued employees?”  Green, realizing how unreasonable his remark sounded (and was), didn’t really answer, but since he did say it, let’s take a look.

I’ve mentioned my EPI paper before, which is on this very topic, specifically the quality of the former CS and EE foreign students who are now in the U.S. tech workforce.  Note that this is the group highlighted by the industry lobbyists as being of special interest to them, and in fact Green mentioned them.  In the CS case, the former foreign students turned out to have lower per-capita patenting rates, attended less selective universities, and were less likely to work in R&D, all compared to U.S. natives.  For EE, the former foreign students were on par with the American natives on the first criterion, no data was analyzed on the second, and the EE former foreign students were weaker than the Americans on the last one.   All of this is counter to Green’s claim.

But there’s more.  I submit that the industry actually is not that obsessed with having quality engineers.  Their first priority is to have cheap, immobile workers, where I remind you that here “cheap” implies young, in addition to often implying foreign. Yes, quality matters a lot–but only after the hiring pool has been narrowed by the filters of cheapness and immobility.  (I’ve cited other factors now and then, including convenience of hiring, meaning being able to pick up the workers one wants at university campuses rather than casting a wide net.)

Here’s a personal example.  Some years ago I gave a talk in a public debate on H-1B, and after the talk a man came up to me, introducing himself as the CEO of a Silicon Valley firm.  He said, “You’re wrong about our hiring H-1Bs as cheap labor.  There really is a tech labor shortage, and my company is having real trouble finding software engineers.”  I replied, “Well, my wife is a software engineer.  I’ll have her apply for a position in your company, and we’ll see what happens.  Her surname is different from mine, so you won’t know it’s her.”  He immediately backtracked, protesting, “No, that’s not fair, she’s probably making too much money!”  Indeed. Clearly this CEO had cheap labor as his first priority; quality didn’t even enter into the conversation.

I’ve seen this happen countless times.  In a recent posting, for instance, I described my encounter with a Dropbox VP:

A few months ago I was invited to participate in an industry panel whose featured speaker was a Dropbox Vice President. Actually, an over-35 friend of mine had just applied to Dropbox the week before — and had been summarily rejected the next day, with the firm not even bothering with a phone interview. My friend has a Harvard degree, 20 years of software development experience, and most important, specific modern skills that Dropbox wants. When I mentioned this, the Dropbox VP, who is in charge of recruiting, admitted that he doesn’t have time to even glance at the tons of CVs his firm receives.

Clearly Dropbox’s summary rejection of my friend shows that quality isn’t Dropbox’s priority filter either.  Instead, he too was perceived as “making too much money.”   And remember, Dropbox was one of the major founders of Fwd.us.

And that makes for a bit of irony.  My friend was a top math student at Harvard.  So here we have Green, whose struggles with high school math made him worry that he wouldn’t get into Harvard, is now, a dozen years later, defending a company that automatically rejected the former Harvard math star for a job.

Again, the second irony is that Green’s comment about engineer quality being so important was correct.  That’s why the industry’s hiring policy, to filter on cheapness/youth first and then apply the quality criterion on those who remain is penny wise, pound foolish.

DIY Legislating

My title here of course refers to President Obama’s plan to circumvent a Congress that is deadlocked on immigration legislation, by issuing Executive Orders aimed at accomplishing part of what the Senate tried and failed to do. Regarding foreign tech worker policy, Computerworld reports that President Obama is contemplating finalizing action such as granting spouses of H-1B visa workers (who hold H-4 visas)  the right to work, and not counting spouses in green card caps.

The degree to which such measures would impact U.S. citizen and permanent resident tech workers is unclear.  Opening the labor market to the H-4s would clearly have an adverse impact on those already in the market, but the degree is uncertain.  As I’ve pointed out many times, one of the major attractions of the H-1B program to employers is that the H-1Bs are essentially immobile if they are also being sponsored for a green card, and sometimes of limited mobility even if not currently being sponsored (e.g. the employer promises sponsorship in the future).  The H-4s would have no such restriction, which ironically may reduce their chances to find a job.  And since many have been out of the labor market for quite a while, they may quickly learn what many Americans have found–if you’ve been out of a job for six months or more, many employers won’t touch you.

Though unfortunately neglected by many of the H-1B critics, including researchers, green card issues are just as important as H-1B.  The Senate would give fast-track green cards to foreign STEM students in U.S. graduate schools, a measure I’ve strongly opposed, as the new grads are almost all young, thus exacerbating the already-disgraceful age discrimination problem that is rampant in the tech industry.  But the effect of speeding things up for those already in line waiting for green cards is less clear.

Of course, the aspect that should trouble Americans of all political persuasions is whether Obama–a former constitutional law professor–has the right to do all this.  It would seem obvious that he has no such right.  The courts tend to stress legislative intent, in this case presumably meaning that if Congress had meant the H-4s to have work rights, Congress would have said so.  Yet, when President George W. Bush changed the work rights period for newly-graduated STEM foreign students from 12 months to 29, a Programmers Guild lawsuit opposing the action was dismissed.  The cause for dismissal was a lack of standing, but don’t we all have standing, in the sense that OUR Constitution is being flouted?  Congress did say 12, after all; Bush (later reaffirmed by Obama) can’t say that Congress meant 29.

As noted in the above Computerworld article, former congressperson Bruce Morrison, who chaired the committee that wrote the H-1B statute in the Immigration Act of 1990, claims that that status makes him an authority on whether Obama can unilaterally change the Act.  Yet Morrison is now a lobbyist, with a vested interest (via his client) in such changes–how can he have any credibility?  And it is irritating that Morrison continues to say his client, IEEE-USA, represents U.S. engineers on foreign-worker issues, when in fact it has never polled its members on the topic.  (The organization, formerly in the vanguard of objection to foreign-worker programs, changed radically after coming under industry pressure around the year 2000.)

The recent Computerworld article cited above also reports that Obama is being asked to institute a priority system for years in which H-1B is oversubscribed, with the Indian “bodyshops” being given lower priority.  As I’ve frequently argued, this is a scapegoating effort to distract attention from the fact that the entire industry abuses the foreign worker programs, not just Tata et al.  But a prioritization does seem to be within the Executive Branch’s powers, and if so, a much better approach would be to prioritize by salary offered, as has been proposed by some.  This would likely reduce the amount of abuse, though certainly not eliminate it.

And where does this all stop?  If presidents can get into the legislation business, will their “laws” be, say, exempt from the Bill of Rights?  The latter uses phrasing such as “Congress shall make no law…,” but what happens when the president makes “laws”?  Surprisingly, this issue seems not to have been settled, making the recent actions by Bush and Obama all the more troubling.