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.