When Did Foreign Students Become ‘International’?

I take my posting title here from the book titles How the Irish Became White and How the Jews Became White, chronicling the gradual societal acceptance of ethnic minorities in the U.S.  I’d also cite the excellent memoir by my University of California, Davis colleague, King Hall Law School Dean Kevin Johnson, How Did You Get to Be Mexican?, telling us of his transformation from Anglo wannabe to a super Latino and a strident booster of expansive immigration policies.  (Kevin’s mother was Mexican.)  These books are not completely analogous to my post this evening, but they have the common theme of change in societal perceptions of certain groups, and as well as self-perceptions.  So far, so good, but it gets scary when positive perceptions are subtly created, by special interests who often have hidden agendas.

This is what Noam Chomsky famously called manufactured consent, in which powerful special interests would use subliminal PR techniques to build popular support for policies that would benefit those interests. This may be motivated by money or power, or in the case of some individuals, simply a craving for the limelight, but typically the motivation is not apparent to the populace who are being manipulated.

As far as I know, the American people have had a positive perception of foreign students over the years, not just passively but even engaging in activities such as serving as host families and so on. But somewhere along the line the lobbying groups’ PR experts decided that the word foreign was a negative, connoting, say, “alien” and worse, “not one of us.”  Thus the term foreign students was dropped, for example, in the media, in university administrator statements,and in the pitches made by political lobbyists and their allies.  The foreign students became international students.

This subtle linguistic movement has been in progress for some time now.  I remember being interviewed on CNN in the late 1990s, and the producer saying to me, “Oh, oh, you used the word ‘foreign.’  This is against CNN policy.  But it’s our fault; we should have warned you.”  If you want a bit of amusement, from now on, watch the statements by the lobbyists and their allies regarding the H-1B work visa; you’ll see that they almost always use the term foreign-born in lieu of foreign, and go to great lengths to avoid the forbidden word.

Look for instance at the paper by two academics, sponsored by an industry lobbying group, titled Talent, Immigration and U.S. Competitiveness.   The term foreign-born is used 27 times, often in such close proximity that it reads quite awkwardly.  All this effort, just to avoid using the word foreign at all costs!  And it’s also inaccurate; lots of my American students are foreign-born but became U.S. citizens or permanent residents long before entering college.  To lump these students in with the foreign students is very misleading (as is much else in that lobbyist-funded study cited above).

Even the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, one of the most active lobbying groups on Capitol Hill, decided it was better to avoid the F-word, and formally changed its name to their acronym, NAFSA.

Mind you, I’ve always strongly supported our nation’s foreign student program, and I still do.  But as I said in my last post, I don’t like being lied to.  We’re told, for instance, that the foreign tech students are typically brilliant, innovative and a boon to the U.S. economy if they stay.  But on the contrary, they are somewhat below the Americans in quality.  My study found that the foreign students in computer science who later joined the U.S. workforce file fewer patents per capita than do Americans of the same background; this jibed with a more general study by Professor Jennifer Hunt of Rutgers (see qualifier in my study).  I also found that the former foreign students were less likely than comparable Americans to be employed in R&D positions, and that they tended to get their degrees at somewhat less-selective institutions, similar to the findings of an NBER study.  Some foreign students are indeed of outstanding talent, having deep insights or great, creative ideas, people who greatly benefit the U.S. if they stay; but they are the small minority.

Even the usual claim that the foreign student program exposes Americans to people of other cultures is, sadly, way overblown.  Once the students of a given nationality reach critical mass on a campus, the amount of mixing with other groups tends to decline drastically.

So, why all this push to place foreign students in a positive light?  Just what are the vested interests here?  I explained in a previous post that employers love to hire foreign students because of their immobility.  Indeed, even some faculty like the “loyal” nature of the foreign students; Stephen Seideman, dean of the school’s college of computing science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, gushed in a 2005 interview that foreign students “will do everything they can to stay here.”

And many small private colleges with funding problems view foreign students as cash cows, people who will pay full freight.  These days public institutions view things the same way, especially since they charge foreign students higher tuition.  The obsession to get their hands on this money reached such a fever pitch at some California State University campuses that one of them, CSU East Bay, even closed Master’s degree admission at one point to domestic students, allowing only foreign students to enroll.  Indeed, even before CSUEB’s dramatic move, 90% of the graduate students in computer science were foreign.  Professor Maria Nieto of CSUEB also stated that the quality of the foreign students was low.

I’ve written many times about the internal National Science Foundation report that advocated expanding the foreign student program in order to hold down PhD salaries in STEM.  (The NSF is one of the two main federal science agencies.)

I’m bringing all this up now partly in response to a recent article by the flamboyant Vivek Wadhwa, a former tech CEO turned tech pundit.  Vivek and I have enjoyed friendly banter over the years, both in public and in private e-mail (in one case, a bit more than banter), and agree on a lot more than we disagree on, such as agreeing on the widespread (but legal) abuse of the H-1B program for cheap labor.

Nevertheless, Vivek has become an outspoken advocate of an expansive tech immigration policy, the main theme of this new piece.  After listing various recent technological advances, he states (without support for the claim) that “Foreign-born engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs are helping lead the charge in all of these areas.”  (Did you catch that magic phrase?)

Vivek, echoing the talking points of the lobbyists, claims that a shortage of visas (both H-1B and green cards) is causing “immigration limbo” for many recent foreign graduates of U.S. schools, and is causing many to return home–presumably a great loss to the U.S. economy, especially since these returnees will contribute to the economies back home.  As he puts it, “The loser is the United States, because it is limiting its economic growth and creating its own competition.”  He supports legislative proposals aimed at keeping them in the U.S.

Though this may sound plausible on the surface, it flies in the face of the facts.  The data show that recent stay rates are still quite high, and that jibes with my personal experience.  I teach graduate students in computer science, electrical engineering and statistics, and I’ve never known a single case in which the foreign student wanted to immigrate to the U.S. but could not do so.  And the much-ballyhooed long waits for green cards are for the EB-3 category, which is for the “ordinary” workers, in contrast to EB-1 and EB-2, the green card categories for the extraordinary talents, presumably the ones we want to keep.

And more important, keeping them in the U.S. doesn’t keep them from aiding the economies of their home countries.  Even the strongly pro-H-1B Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian found that more than 80% of the Indian and Chinese engineers in Silicon Valley share technological information with firms in their home countries, with over half investing in tech back home.  (Please note:  This is NOT meant to imply industrial espionage.)  So, to use Vivek’s phrasing, we are “creating our own competition” anyway.

There are lots of good reasons to have a thriving foreign student program.  We “educate the world,” especially the Third World countries that need technical help; we expose foreigners to American culture–sometimes shocking them, but typically earning their respect–and there is at least some cultural transfer in the other direction.  And yes, in some cases it does bring “the best and the brightest” to the U.S.  But we should support the student visa program for those laudable reasons, not to satisfy hidden agendas.  We should not support the legislative goals of the special interests that are harmful to the national well-being. And please, no more CSU East Bay fiascos, OK?

A Fly-on-the-Wall Look at the Putative Tech Labor Shortage

Some years ago I knew a researcher whose nonprofit organization employer had gotten a grant to study how HR works in Silicon Valley.  It was arranged that the researcher would act as a “fly on the wall” in the HR office at a major firm, Cisco if I recall correctly.  Unfortunately, her employer folded, and the study never took place.

For you researchers and policy makers out there, let me tell you–you would have been profoundly shocked at the results had the project gone through.  It would be clear in a very concrete way why the tech industry’s claims to be unable to find qualified workers is a joke.  Well, I’ll present to you here a weak but I believe powerful substitute for that ill-fated Cisco study。

Over the weekend the Baltimore Sun ran a piece on the claimed tech labor shortage, and the claimed need to remedy it by expanding the H-1B work visa program.  It ran true to the usual formula:  Give examples of local employers who turn to the H-1B program out of desperation when they can’t find qualified U.S. citizens or permanent residents; quote “experts” stating that the current H-1B cap is woefully inadequate; and present a couple of token quotes from some naysayers.  Not much new so far, but let’s take a closer look at the article’s poster firm, Merkle, Inc., which “builds more than 1,000 complex computer models each year for marketing clients who want to know more about their customers’ behaviors and preferences.”

Merkle is an excellent example for a change of pace from my usual analyses, in that it’s not a software company.  Instead, it specializes in data science and analytics, fancy new terms referring really to old statistical methodology applied to huge data sets (“Big Data”).  This is a currently hot area, and for instance I would estimate that over half the startup tech firms in San Francisco’s trendy South of Market (SOMA) area are in this business.

Those who are well familiar with my research know what telltale signs to look for first in a company–a hiring focus on the young.  The First Central Employer Motivation for hiring H-1B visa workers is to cut costs by employing young H-1Bs in lieu of older (35+) Americans, as the latter cost more in both wages and benefits. (Hiring young H-1Bs is cheaper than hiring young Americans too, but the age aspect is where the big savings are to be made.)

Sure enough, Merkle’s Careers Web page has openings for Junior Analyst, Junior Data Scientist and so on, and one of the positions as a “Senior” Analyst requires only two years of experience!   And the firm can’t even give the usual software firm’s excuse that it hires young “because the technology is changing so fast” (a red herring anyway)–because it isn’t.  Most of the methodology is well over 20 years old. There are a couple of new tools for implementing them, and one or two new-ish methods, but the pace of change is certainly much slower than in the software world.

Now go a level deeper, by reading Merkle employee comments on Glassdoor.   No, not a scientific sample, but telling nonetheless, especially since most of the commenters say they would recommend the company to a friend; these are not malcontents.  Yet there is a consistent theme in the comments that the firm has an alarmingly high turnover, e.g.:

“…they struggle to retain talent”; “The turn-over rate is way too high, and most people live[sic] for more money”, “The turnover rate is quite high”, “Pathetic pay”, “the great talent mentioned above gets tired and leaves
-I’d estimate at least 80% of the employees have been there less than 2 years. Think about that turnover for a minute with almost 2000 employees”; “no promotion, no real bump in salary”; “Poor attrition rate, due to burn-out or dissatisfaction, both really common with most exits”; “Incessant burn out pace- good people leave for lack of any sense of accomplishment or gratitude”; “Lots of turnover – job burnout – aggressive delivery timelines – long hours. Projects often were disrupted because someone left the company”; “Burn n churn”

That ties right in with the Second Central Employer Motivation for hiring H-1Bs:  A desire for immobile labor.  Unfortunately, this aspect is almost never mentioned in debates about the foreign tech worker programs, and indeed is not widely known even by researchers.  But to many employers, especially the newer ones, it is of the utmost importance.  Clearly, Merkle, with its horrendous turnover problem, would find the “solution” of hiring immobile foreign workers irresistible.

Immigration lawyers openly pitch this to employers.  By sponsoring a foreign worker for a green card, the employer in essence renders the worker immobile, trapped there for years.  I cited several public statements by lawyers in my University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform article, and more recently have been quoting David Swain’s document.  (Swain, it should be noted, writes that he was the architect of the immigration policy for Texas Instruments, one of the most active firms promoting expansion of the H-1B visa.)

But even better is Swain’s newest, pitching specifically to employers who wish to recruit foreign students (F-1 visa category). Imagine how appealing a retention-challenged company like Merkle would find the following statements, taken from that new document:

“Most college graduates leave in less than two years. F-1 students who
want permanent residence must stay seven to twelve years…In most cases
the employee is required to wait under an extensive quota system which
can be anywhere from five to ten years, depending on the position and
the employee’s place of birth. It is this step in the process which
allows the employer to maximize the retention advantages of hiring
international students…[Concerning the cost of green card
sponsorship:] Since the legal system requires the international employee
to keep the same employment for seven to twelve years, the ‘cost’ [the
lawyer says $8,000] of that employee should be viewed in the greater
context of the value that employee brings to the company…minor
compared to the overall compensation.”

(Swain adds that, of course, the employer has no obligation to keep the worker for  “seven to twelve years.” )

Again, this issue is not widely known, but it is one of the two central employer motivators for hiring H-1Bs.  It is de facto indentured servitude, highly abusive, all perfectly legal, and has a clear adverse impact on Americans:  If an American and a foreign student of equal quality apply for a job, the above considerations would give the foreign student a major advantage over the American.

Now what about the type of H-1B abuse discussed more often, the payment of lower wages to an H-1B than to an equally-qualified American?  To those who don’t know the nature of the jobs, the PERM data for Merkle would appear to indicate that in some cases the firm is paying its foreign workers quite generously, well above the legally-required prevailing wage.  For instance, here is one of Merkle’s PERM records from 2011:

A-11187-90670,09/27/11 15:25:25,Certified,PERM,MERKLE INC.,7001 COLUMBIA GATEWAY DRIVE,,COLUMBIA,MD,21046,5416,Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services,Other Economic Sector,15-2041.00,Statisticians,Statisticians,Level I,OES,56243,yr,85000,,yr,Columbia,MD,CHINA,H-1B

The prevailing wage is $56,243 while the offered wage is $85,000.  (Actually, the offered wage may be less than this, due to a loophole I won’t go into here.)

I’ve explained before why the legal prevailing wage is typically substantially below the market value the foreign worker would have if he/she were a free agent.  But in the case of data analytics jobs like those at Merkle, the inadequacy of prevailing wage is especially acute.  Here’s why:

The government job category often used in Merkle’s PERM records is 15-2041.00, Statisticians. As mentioned above, this category is technically right, as the workers are using statistical methodology.  But those in data analytics are perceived as knowing far more, such as use of the cloud programming language Hadoop.  (And Merkle’s job ads do ask for experience in Hadoop and similar tools.)  So, the going rate for data science is $90,000 on the low end, and goes much higher than that.  See for instance the O’Reilly survey.

In other words, the 15-2041.00, Statisticians wage category is not the right one for Merkle’s foreign workers at all.  The prevailing wage figures Merkle is using are for, say, a Bachelor’s graduate with a Statistics degree who is doing small-data statistical work at, say, a small bio lab. So no, the evidence does not show that Merkle is paying its foreign workers well, and indeed it would appear the opposite is the case, as many of the Merkle PERM records show it is paying only the prevailing wage.

Finally, what about the other industry claim, to hire H-1Bs because they are “the best and the brightest”?  Sounds like Merkle would be hiring foreign students from the likes of MIT, Stanford and UC Berkeley, right?  Well, a search for Merkle in LinkedIn doesn’t confirm that at all.  Of the ones from China that I found, they had attended universities at home such as Tsinghua, Zhejiang, Huadong, Hong Kong Baptist College and the Shanghai University of International Business and Economics.  Of these, Tsinghua is first-rate, Huadong and Zhejiang are middling, and the rest are considered weak.  The Chinese students had then attended American schools such as Penn, San Francisco State, BYU, Sonoma State, Bentley University, University of Chicago, George Mason, Johns Hopkins, University of Louisville, University of Delaware and so on.  So, there is a wide range of selectivity, and with my usual disclaimer that quality of institution does not necessary mean quality of its graduates, we see there is no general pattern here of Merkle hiring “geniuses” from China.  The results are similar for India.

Wrapping up:  The above information suggests that Merkle, notorious for retention problems, must hire like crazy to fill the jobs vacated by the high turnover, rather than indicating a “labor shortage,” as Merkle claims.  Moreover it is likely, I believe from my experience, that Merkle views the indentured nature of foreign workers to be the solution to its retention problems, as opposed to hiring Americans who can and will leave after experiencing the company’s onerous working conditions.

The statistical evidence, notably flat wage trends, shows the claim of a tech labor shortage to be false.  But I believe a look at the qualitative side, as we’ve had here for Merkle, yields further understanding of the invalidity of the shortage claims.

Diverse Cooks Make a Nice Broth

Among us researchers who question the tech industry’s claim of a labor shortage and the related claim of a “need” to expand the H-1B work visa and employer-sponsored green card programs, there is a ton of mutual respect but still considerable divergence of opinion.  For instance, I differ from some of  the rest in that I consider the focus on the outsourcing firms to be unwarranted and counterproductive.  

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” the saying goes, but USA Today is now running an op-ed by a very diverse group of five of us, and I must say that I like the result.  We are a diverse group not only in terms of the outsourcing issue, but also in terms of geography, gender, ethnicity, public-vs.-private institution, and political party.  (I’m a Democrat, and I know of at least one Republican in the group.)  And I think it captures well our view of what we consider a self-serving sham push by the industry for legislation that would be harmful to the U.S. economy and well-being.

There have been some interesting developments lately on these issues, and I have two more blog posts planned for the next few days.  The first, to be titled, “A Fly-on-the-Wall Look at the Claimed Tech Labor ‘Shortage’,” will run this evening if I have time.

Globalism, Sincerity and a Desire for a Decent (Not Lavish) Life

The trigger for my topic here is one of Alan Tonelson’s posts today, titled “Why U.S. Globalization Policies Need More ‘Narrow’ Nationalism.”   Actually, it prompts me to make a number of points I’ve wanted to bring up for quite a while.

In the above post, Alan takes umbrage at a recent column by prominent economist Tyler Cowan on the effects of globalization.  Cowan points to research showing that globalization (a category in which Cowan includes immigration, citing George Borjas’ work) has slammed the middle and lower classes in wealthy nations like the U.S. Cowan notes wryly that these findings are “contrary to what many economists had promised.”

Many who read Cowan’s article must have laughed at the economists’ lack of common sense.  And THAT is my real problem with them, even with Cowan, of whom I am a longtime fan.  Most of them have never experienced serious economic hardship, say a period of extended unemployment or a home foreclosure.  Hence, they just don’t get it.

And that’s why Cowan’s second point is rather hollow:  The good news, he points out, is that globalization has generally (though not in all cases) improved standards of living for the world’s poor.  Alan retorts, in essence, “Fine, but don’t ignore people in the U.S.”  Again, to someone who has always had a comfortable life financially like Cowan, Alan’s words sound selfish.  But I believe most other people know exactly what Alan means.

I do agree that the improvement of living standards in the Third World is good news, as Cowan says.  I’ve been passionate about this issue ever since college, and in fact this was one of the main motivations I had for specializing in statistics.  (I’m a former stat professor, and am still quite active in the field even though I’ve taught computer science most of my career.)

And though I’ve written extensively on the problems of the H-1B work visa, I’m far from doctrinnaire about trade issues.  I’ve mentioned here before, for instance, that I’ve always driven Japanese cars, as I believe they are better made (especially important for someone who lives 60 miles from work, as I do).  I feel the same way about services as about goods, and have actively supported bringing in “the best and the brightest” from around the world.

But the key point that Cowan does NOT address is, to what degree is it possible to have a it both ways–continued progress in living standards in the Third World while still maintaining reasonable levels here?  Clearly, if Cowan doesn’t have an answer to that question, then neither do I.  (Though I don’t lack for ideas on ameliorating the negative effects on Americans.) But what we at least CAN ask for is an honest dialog–and we’re not getting one.  The globalists’ rallying cry, “American consumers benefit in lower prices,” is rarely critically examined, even though the information is out there–the research and even “thought experiments” show that the price “savings” accruing from trade are typically quite small. Indeed, occasionally even those with self-interest, such as the National Association of Manufactures, publicly admit it.

Given my work on the H-1B issue, I see this problem up close.  The industry lobbyists excel at manipulating a generally gullible and even innumerate press.  One of my favorite retorts in that game is one I use when the lobbyists say, “The tech industry is forced to hire mainly new or recent graduates, including foreign students at U.S. campuses, because only the young new grads know the latest technologies.  The older engineers don’t have these new skills.”  I reply, “Well, who taught those young people the new skills?  It’s old guys like me!”  Actually, a bright child could see that gaping hole in the lobbyists’ argument–so why can’t the journalists see it?

Sadly, academia, supposedly a bastion of truth and impartial inquiry, is the source of a lot of the industry PR–paid for by them, in the form of research funding.  Call me old-fashioned, but I simply cannot understand why presumably self-respecting economics professors (I don’t mean Cowan) would take industry funding for research that–surprise!–turns out to support the funders’ views.

So we have government and policy making by lobbyists and others with vested interests.  Yes, part of this is due to the generous campaign donations the tech industry makes to Congress, the president and the political parties.  But I’ve had enough interaction with people on the Hill to know that most of them really believe this stuff.  To them, America’s economic strength depends on importing engineers, and evidence to the contrary is simply cognitive dissonance, automatically dismissed.

So is all the evidence showing chicanery by Microsoft in particular on the H-1B issue, including a recent New York Times op-ed by Bill Gates (plus Warren Buffett and Sheldon Adelson, but I’ll focus on the tech guy here, Gates and the firm he founded). The article told how the H-1B workers are “badly needed” by the tech industry.  Yet days later, Microsoft announced a huge layoff, and then announced that it was going to reduce the work it assigns to its independent contractors.  Microsoft actually has a long history of saying one thing but doing another in connection to the H-1B and alleged tech labor shortage issues.

Folks, Cowan has a point about the up side of trade for the Third World, but I don’t like being lied to by those PR hacks.  Do you?

Yahoo! Sexual Harassment Suit May Have Deeper Implications

If you are the type who is captivated by Silicon Valley scandals, you are probably aware of the sordid, gruesome story of Google executive Forrest Hayes.  But another one surfaced the other day regarding a sexual harassment suit filed by former Yahoo! software engineer Nan Shi, against her former supervisor, Maria Zhang, and against Yahoo! itself. Needless to say, I don’t know either party (ironically, I first read about the suit on Yahoo!), and nothing I say here should be construed as siding with either of them. But if Shi’s allegations are true–not only about Zhang actions, but even more importantly about the claim that Yahoo! HR ignored Shi’s complaint–then this would be one more disturbing example that many in Silicon Valley are “ethically challenged.”  Zhang holds a position of some prominence in the Valley. And there is another possible aspect of Shi’s claims that is quite troubling.  As usual, the reader comments in the San Jose Mercury News report on the suit were interesting, but one in particular caught my eye:

Very sorry for Ms. Nan Shi. I guess being a woman, immigrant, and having her residency tied to the job in a dominating techno-slavery arrangement with her supervisor is pure evil. Wish you strength and peace in this ongoing lawsuit.

The reader assumes here that Yahoo! had been sponsoring Shi for a green card before they fired her.   [Update, July 15:  This apparently is not the case; see post by “j-lon” below.  The principle, of course, still holds.]  We don’t know this.  It’s quite possible, though.  According to Shi’s LinkedIn page, she left Ohio University (not to be confused with Ohio State University) in 2004.  She worked for Microsoft for five years, then joined Zhang’s startup, which was later acquired by Yahoo!. These days there is a long waiting time for employment-based green card applicants from China, often 10 years or more.  It is possible that Zhang did sponsor Shi for a green card in the startup, with the application now held by Yahoo!, and that Shi’s green card had indeed been hanging in the balance while she worked under Zhang at Yahoo!.  If this were not the case, i.e. if she actually did already have a green card, one would assume she would have left rather than put up with the abuse; her credentials certainly would have opened many other doors for her. Assuming hypothetically that Shi was beholden to Zhang/Yahoo! for her green card sponsorship, this would be an illustration of the enormous power an employer has over a sponsored employee. This problem was noted in the congressionally-commissioned report of the National Research Council, and has been openly pitched to employers by immigration lawyers.  Tech firms want to have “tethered,” i.e. immobile workers, because it’s quite disruptive when a key engineer leaves an urgent project for another firm.  The companies can’t keep U.S. citizens and permanent residents from leaving, but they can tether foreign workers by sponsoring them for green cards, often for many years. Immigration lawyer David Swaim, whose online biography notes that he “created the immigration procedures at dozens of companies such as Texas Instruments…”, states,

By far the most important advantage of [green card sponsorship] is the fact that the employee is tied to a particular position with one company and must remain with the company for more than four years…

As noted above, for sponsorees from China and India, the waiting time is typically more than six years these days, often as much as 10 years or even more. Though the press coverage of the H-1B work visa tends to focus on the fact that H-1Bs are typically paid less than their market value, for many employers this tethering of the foreign workers is even more important than saving in wage costs. If Shi had been in the midst of a Yahoo!-sponsored green card application process, her claims of sexual harassment by Zhang would, if valid, be a dramatic example of just how much power the employer has over the sponsored worker.

Why Are We Worried about China’s Paper Chase?

The June 30 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) included an article titled “While Debating Visas, U.S. May Miss Bigger Keys to Scientific Success” (requires subscription).  Given the ultrasensitive nature of immigration topics these days, readers might be forgiven for not catching the nuance in the title–which is intended to (correctly) convey the point that the article is actually NOT about the H-1B work visa or employer-based (EB-series) green cards.  Instead, to me the salient theme of the article is the growing competition between China and the U.S., though this theme turns out to have an H-1B/EB connection, as you’ll see.

I wrote in my recent blog posting on tech ethics of the very much heightened awareness in DC these days of China as a rival to the U.S. in tech prowess.  By coincidence, just this week a Chinese immigrant, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was convicted of selling U.S. firms’ trade secrets to companies in China.  (I was startled to learn that he lives in my suburban Bay Area city.)  There have been a number of such incidents, enough that the Wall Street Journal once ran a sidebar listing a number of the more interesting cases.  It’s clear that such cases will be prosecuted vigorously.

Though I am sharply critical of both the H-1B and EB-series green card programs, I have always strongly supported rolling out the immigration red carpet for the world’s “best and brightest” scientists and engineers.  It’s not entirely clear from the CHE article whether the highlighted scientist, Dr. Xiao-Wei Chen, is of best/brightest caliber, but let’s assume that he is.  The main point of the article is that the U.S. is about to lose him.  Basically, China made him a much more attractive offer, and DC finds this alarming.

The China Fear Factor is especially evident in this passage of the article:

“China is about to eat our lunch,” Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, told a staff briefing last month on Capitol Hill. She expressed particular concern about China’s getting close to overtaking the United States in the volume of research publications. “That indeed would be a tragic set of circumstances,” she said.

This is very highly misleading.  Contrary to what some university deans might think, counts of papers do NOT reflect the scientific productivity of an individual, an institution or a nation.  To compete with China on paper counts would make no more sense the the old “browser war” between Microsoft and Netscape, in which there was an escalating “arms race” to add more and more features that had less and less utility.

To be sure, China is indeed engaged in this paper chase.  The pressure is now on researchers in China to produce as many papers as possible, quality be damned.   The primary motivation behind this, I’m told, is that the Chinese government was upset that China has no highly-ranked, world class universities.  Upon investigating, they learned that one of the ranking criteria was…paper counts!  So, they’re gaming the system–just like some American professors do, I might add.

But it’s not good for China or the U.S. in any economic or intellectual sense.  On the contrary, it’s destructive, because it means that precious resources are being devoted to makework rather than on innovative, groundbreaking work.

Nevertheless, various members of Congress and of the Executive Branch see China as a looming economic threat, and they are taking ill-advised steps, such as proposing legislation to give automatic green cards to foreign STEM students who earn graduate degrees in the U.S.  The article correctly points out that the foreign students who want to stay do find a way to stay.  It’s always been that way, and indeed the vast majority of Chinese students and scholars in the U.S. end up staying here–without some blanket legislation that would give even master’s degree students at undistinguished state colleges automatic green cards.

Moreover, what is more disturbing is that many in DC see the green card programs as a way to “steal” STEM workers from China.  I had heard rumors of this for years, but still was taken aback when they were confirmed at a talk at Georgetown University I gave a few years ago on the quality of the foreign STEM students in the U.S.  An attendee came up to me afterward, and turned out to be a young green card case adjudicator at USCIS.  He said something close to this:   “I don’t see what the fuss is about.  My understanding is that our mission is to grab STEM students away from China.  The quality doesn’t matter.”

This is absurd on so many levels, but the most important one is this:  If STEM is indeed so vital to U.S. well being as everyone says it is, we should really focus on excelling in STEM fields–NOT constantly looking back over our shoulder at China, NOT using counterproductive measures of STEM productivity, and above all, NOT establishing policies that discourage our own best and brightest young people from pursuing STEM careers.

The situation in lab science fields, for instance, is atrocious.  We have a huge surplus of trained scientists, making lab science about as unattractive as possible to our young people.  Why are we overproducing doctorates in STEM, and considering importing more,  other than to please certain vested interests, notably the universities?  It would be nice if people like Jackie Spier worried about THAT, instead of counts of Chinese research papers.

Skill Shortages, Hamburgers and Jobs Americans Won’t Do

Alan Tonelson’s blog post today cites a CNBC report on alleged skills shortages plaguing U.S. employers.  In an employer survey, 13% admitted that the “shortages” were due to their simply not offering a high enough wage.

Professor Peter Cappelli of Penn’s Wharton School of Business has written extensively on this point, but I’ll add some comments here in terms of the tech labor market.  First, though, in order to make things concrete, here are a couple of low-tech examples.

I wonder how many air travelers noticed before 9/11 that each major airport differed in terms of the ethnicity of its baggage security screeners.  If you were to fly from SFO to BWI, for instance, you would be served by Filipino immigrants on your trip to Baltimore, and then by African-Americans on the way back.  That changed after 9/11, when Congress enacted legislation that (a) required the screeners to be U.S. citizens and (b) substantially increased wages for the job.  At SFO, the Filipinos had previously tended to be longtime green card holders who, for whatever reason, had not chosen to naturalize.  So positions opened, and lo and behold, there was a flood of applicants from the general population.  So here is one job that had been wrongly assumed to be the type that “Americans won’t do,”  Indeed, that should have been clear even before 9/11, by noticing the ethnic difference between (for example) SFO and BWI.  

Then there is my “hamburger theory.”  In California there is a popular chain of hamburger stands called In ‘N Out, in addition of course to McDonald’s and the like.  A typical McD’s in California will have most of its workforce consist of (adult) Latinos, of which I am assuming most are immigrants.  Yet at In ‘N Out, the workers are mainly teenage Anglos (just like it was at McDonald’s when I was a kid).  Why the disparity?  Last time I checked, the wage at In ‘N Out was about 25% higher.

It’s not just wages.  Many jobs are filled through word-of-mouth via social networks, hence the mainly-Filipino SFO screeners and the mainly-Latino workers at McDonald’s.  But as with most things, money plays a big role.

In the tech labor market, especially for software engineers, there is a rampant age discrimination problem, as noted in the congressionally-commissioned NRC report, and discussed in an excellent recent Fortune piece.  Though some of this is directly age-related, in which the 20-somethings aren’t comfortable working with those over age 35 (yes, I said 35, not 55), it again boils down mainly to employers simply not wanting to pay wages normal for a 35-year-old.

And even though a 35-year-old might be willing to take a pay cut, HR will likely screen him/her out, having set the job at entry-level.  The 35-year-old will then be rejected without even a phone interview, on the grounds that he/she is “overqualified.”

And simultaneously UNDERqualified.  It will be claimed that this older applicant doesn’t have up-to-date skills.  Let’s see now…the applicant is both overqualified and underqualified.  Only in Silicon Valley would such a Kafka-esque assessment be made.

One aspect of this that I like to point out is that this notion of a tech skills shortage can lead to contradictions so blatant that even a child could spot them.  The tech firms say they’re forced to hire only the young new graduates, as only they have the latest skill sets.  Well, now…who TAUGHT those new graduates the modern skills?  It was old guys like me!  So it’s absurd to say only the young’ns know Python, to cite for example a claim made by the San Jose Mercury News last year.

Another problem with that employer survey Alan mentioned is that if managers were among the respondents, many would sincerely assert a skills shortage–without realizing that HR is not sending them the CVs of older applicants who do have the skills.