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.


30 thoughts on “Skill Shortages, Hamburgers and Jobs Americans Won’t Do

  1. Norm: You may have a stylistic reason for choosing not to have footnotes or hyperlinks in this blog. I’d appreciate them so that I could learn more. Thanks!


  2. As usual, you are right on target. I’m one of the old guys. When I built my first computer, we dreamed of the day that you could buy a floppy disk at K-mart and the day when the average Joe would know what a Megabyte was. Anyhow, when I was a kid, I remember the teacher’s union was all upset over the fact that garbage collectors made more money than teachers. Of course, that was before H-1B’s and the like, so the city simply had to pay a decent wage to people to get them to do the kind of work *Americans wont do*. Sewer workers got paid even more. So there is no legitimate job that Americans wont do for a fair wage.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Meatpacking for cattle and such is no doubt almost exclusively immigrants now; very hard and unpleasant work, often in freezers. Decades ago those were high-paying much sought after union jobs.

      But we didn’t have as many billionaires then.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Bill Kennedy’s point about the wage dynamics of “unskilled work”[1] may be more generalizable. Frank Bardacke[2] discussed the rise and fall of Cesar Chavez and the UFW and the modern history of farmwork in California on “Behind the News”[3]. During that discussion, Bardacke not only made a convincing (to me–YMMV) case that professional farmworkers are skilled, he also stated that

          * before the “bracero program”[4] began, the prevailing CA farmworker wage was 90% of the prevailing industrial wage
          * after Bracero ended, farmworker wage was 40% of the industrial wage

          So I guess a profession is “unskilled” iff its members lack the political skills to prevent mass importation of cheap labor 😦

          [1]: Can any job that involves sustained, fast work with deadly-sharp implements truly be labeled “unskilled”? I suspect those truly unskilled at industrial meatpacking rapidly “receive severance,” with or without pay.


      • Tom Roche, A friend who was a fine athlete tried lemon picking in the 60s – ‘retired’ after one day. High wages for ‘unskilled’ agricultural labor was controversial in the 70s. Another friend whose family owned a farm said that of the people opposing high wages, maybe 2% were capable of doing that ‘unskilled’ work.

        ‘The UFW during Chavez’s tenure was committed to restricting immigration. Chavez and Dolores Huerta, cofounder and president of the UFW, fought the Bracero Program that existed from 1942 to 1964. Their opposition stemmed from their belief that the program undermined U.S. workers and exploited the migrant workers. Since the Bracero Program ensured a constant supply of cheap immigrant labor for growers, immigrants could not protest any infringement of their rights, lest they be fired and replaced. Their efforts contributed to Congress ending the Bracero Program in 1964.’

        Sounds a whole lot like H1-B, except that never ends. Chavez would actually turn in undocumented workers to the Immigration Service. Later Chavez had to bow to the political winds and support the undocumented, and they eventually overwhelmed any efforts to keep wages high in the fields.


  3. would like to thank for this,but here in my part of America ( triad – PTI) in North Carolina I hear the same thing from many political progressives who throw down the agriculture positions retorts,but when i have pointed out how many illegal aliens ( US Immigration law term) are in the skilled positions like welding,construction,,heavy equipment operations,they then try to turn the discussion around by changing the meaning of words and phrases in hopes of changing the direction of debates/discussions. to fit their agendas. And here even black americans & activist groups are pushing and promoting amnesty of all illegal aliens despite the known facts that here in NC unemployment for blacks 7 black youth is and remains double digit…go figure. Thanks again steve henderson


  4. Good essay. Some anecdotal comments:

    The minimum wage in WA was over $9/hour when the recent “recovery” began. Back then a large apple orchard owner told me his only Anglo employee was the book keeper and no Anglo has asked him for a job in a decade.

    50 years ago I had a prof from the USSR with masters’ in lit (?). When he first arrived in the US he wanted to work for a NYC newspaper. He was told he was over qualified. At the next newspaper he told them he had finished 8th grade and was hired.

    These days many employers require at least a two year college certificate (“degree”) to increase the chances that the applicant will be able to do 10th grade reading, writing, and arithmetic.

    The freak “middle class” bubble has popped. I have recently read/heard comments about the job/pay situation from people with media access who have concluded the “middle class” must learn to live with a reduced standard of living. The US job shortage is with unskilled blue/white collar workers and high tech workers. The job surplus is factory workers and those with college degrees in the wrong subjects.

    During the 2nd Reagan election I had a conversation with a young lady whose car was plastered with anti-Reagan signs. I asked why she was so angry with Reagan – she could not find a job. I asked what kind of work she did. She had a PhD in something that was new to me. I asked, “Who hires people with your degree?” After thinking for at least half a minute, she replied, “Governments.”


  5. Labor shortages are caused by employers paying their workers a below market clearing wage. This can be shown with a plot of the supply and demand curves. This is econ 101 stuff. The market solution would be for employers to pay the higher market clearing wage.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I believe I got my last two contract jobs by bypassng HR (1996-2003). Forty years ago HR departments developed policies to even “overqualify” new college grads in the depression of the early 1970’s. To those employers today who cannot find the “right skills” to do anything no matter what the job is I would ask: How did Rosie the Riviter build B-17’s? Answer: Anybody can do anything that’s gotta get done no matter what. By the time you get the job done you will have the right skills to do it.


    • In the days before the popularity of the H-1B work visa, it was standard for software developers to learn new programming languages etc. on the job, on their own, with no formal training needed. To employers: If someone isn’t sharp enough to become productive in a new language in a couple of weeks, on their own, then you shouldn’t hire them, as they are not good enough to do work even in the skills they already have.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I learned the ADA (DOD mil spec 1983) language on the job, the first language specifically designed to take on large complex safety critical systems, with no previous computer science formal training or serious programming experience. I was a slide rule era physical science major.


      • Those days are gone. When I first started out in the mid-80’s, I remember my boss was hiring older guys with NO college who’s only qualifications were that they owned some sort of PC at home (that wasn’t necessarily the same kind we worked with on the job). But to give the devil his due, I did find those guys rather irritating in that they should have come to the job knowing what they were doing, but yet I had to train them – and the last thing they wanted was to listen to anything a young kid had to say. But now that we have H-1b’s, I do have to wonder if those new languages (C#, python, etc.) weren’t invented just to aggravate (and filter out) older programmers. For my own projects, I’ve always used plain C and never longed for anything else (except maybe assembler here and there).

        Liked by 1 person

      • In response to Dennis H. I think you hit the nail on the head. Microsoft intentionally moves around capabilities to accomplish routine tasks in their “new” versions. (Think Windows 8.1 as a prime example.) Sharp people can figure this out and adapt.

        Liked by 1 person

      • In a recent e-mail exchange with some older computer science profs and newer ones, one of the older ones mentioned that nearly all software work could be done by anyone at least moderately bright and a solid foundation, and pick up the new stuff. This echoes prof. Matloff’s posting, and that had always been the widely accepted expectation from managers I’ve interviewed, but, since at least the mid-1990s, employers haven’t wanted that.

        They want people with several years of experience (but not too many) in the precise hardware, OS, tools, programming languages, methodologies, paradigms/patterns, and kinds of applications, so they can “hit the ground running”, and then be dumped as soon as a project is complete. They don’t want to invest in training, retirement, health insurance, paid vacations… They want someone who can program, maybe develop new algorithms, do the math, know the physics or chemistry or POS or engineering or graphics arts or whatever is required to do this gig; i.e. they don’t want teams of collaborators, but 1-man bands… and be cheap, meek/pliant and “flexible” when it comes to ethical considerations.

        OK, here’s a kicker from Steve Goldstein at MarketWatch:
        BLS is claiming that “12.4% of Americans work in STEM fields”. If that were resident population, that would be over 39.2 million people, which sounds like a stretch; and if it were civilian, non-institutionalized population 16 and older it would be 30.7 million, still a stretch; and if it is percentage of the currently-employed it would be 18.2 million, closer but still a stretch. Meanwhile, by setting aside STEM pros no longer employed in STEM, BLS is claiming the STEM “labor force” is much smaller (1.3M sciences; 1.3M medical; 4.2M math+CS; 2.8M A&E) than the pool of able and willing STEM-savvy people. File under “how to fabricate a talent shortage”.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. It would seem that Messrs. Adelson ,Buffet and Gates are not of the same mind set as We are. 🙂
    New York Time Op-ed
    “A “talented graduate” reform was included in a bill that the Senate approved last year by a 68-to-32 vote. It would remove the worldwide cap on the number of visas that could be awarded to legal immigrants who had earned a graduate degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics from an accredited institution of higher education in the United States, provided they had an offer of employment.”

    What is the definition of “talented graduate” ?
    Thoughts 🙂


    • This is basic economics 101 – supply and demand. The economic elites have developed schemes to flood the technology fields with imported “fresh young blood” to permanently displace experienced American citizen technical professionals – and restrain wage growth. I include the H-1B Visa, created in 1990, the OPT extension to the F-1 Visa, circa 2008, and S. 744, passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013, among these schemes.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Last I heard, the definition of “talented graduate” would be deferred to the NSF, and it would be defined in terms of school–meaning, I’m told, about 200 colleges and universities. So, any foreign graduate of really undistinguished colleges would count as the next Einstein.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I posted this as a reply to the NYT billionaires’ editorial for immigration ‘reform’ [comments are closed now]:

      I think we know that globalist American corporations and their enablers, i.e. the entire American establishment, want more immigration, called ‘reform.’ The endless flow of desperate workers, illegal at the low end, on high-tech visas at the high end, is very good for employers and not so good for American workers, and increasing population makes the wealthy’s investments more valuable. There is not one voice in the major media against reform. There used to be one guy on TV who would criticize mass immigration, but that was one voice too many in the land of the free. The establishment thought that was hate speech.

      But the American people don’t agree. In spite of a flood of very similar polls, carefully crafted by skilled corporate PR, that purport to show great support for reform, what the American people want is equal enforcement of the law. They hunger and thirst for justice.

      “As for immigration, the new survey indicates three-quarters of Americans support the contentious Arizona law that allows police to arrest or detain suspected illegal immigrants during the enforcement of other laws.”

      For many articles or opinions published on all major sites, the posts run 10-1 against reform, often more for most-liked posts. At least we can post, but we’re sure not heard in MSM. Even FOX News is as pro-reform as they can get away with. [Murdoch – friend of yours?]

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is indicative of cover letters I send requiring many years of experience. I never get a response:

    I am a seasoned full-stack developer with experience ranging from operating systems and device drivers to database, scientific computing and user interfaces – including web interfaces and mobile devices. I have also contributed in all roles of the software project and software development life cycles.

    My technical background is diverse and extensive, spanning over 3 dozen organizations worldwide on dozens of software projects for over a dozen industries. I have a track record of self-driven motivation and strong work ethic to solve challenging problems and delivering as promised.

    I enjoy challenges and meeting them using innovative ways of thinking – to such extent I later acquired an education to understand the nature of thinking itself, in how the individual and teams solve problems. I also have excelled in both written and spoken communications and am able to adjust to any audience and any context.

    I look forward to speaking with you about the position. Please contact me if you have further questions.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Got a link today to a press release entitled “Census Bureau Reports Majority of STEM College Graduates Do Not Work in STEM Occupations”[1] (see also infographic[2]), which leads “The U.S. Census Bureau reported today that 74 percent of those who have a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering and math — commonly referred to as STEM — are not employed in STEM occupations.” (It may actually have been released 14 Jul 2014; OTOH, I don’t see a date on the webpage.)

    So I guess one can only conclude that Americans “just won’t do” STEM jobs, despite having invested years majoring in STEM 🙂


    Liked by 2 people

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