Low-Key Conference on a Hot Issue

Recently a short conference was held on H-1B and related issues at the National Academy of Sciences.  The NAS is a highly august, 150-year-old private organization, whose research arm, the NRC, is frequently commissioned by Congress to do studies on controversial issues.  I’ve often cited their 2001 study, conducted when Congress requested an analysis of the tech industry’s claims of a labor shortage, claims by critics of rampant age discrimination in tech, and so on.

The Web page for the recent conference states that videos will be available of the proceedings.  I had intended to wait for them before posting here, but since they are still not available, I’m commenting now on the basis of the posted papers and slides.  I’ll comment on more information if it becomes available (including possibly from some who read this and were present at the conference).

According to a Computerworld article, the NAS conference was cosponsored by Microsoft.  I was disappointed to learn this, as Microsoft has contributed funding to a number of organizations and individuals who do research that takes a supportive view of the H-1B program.  It’s not clear to what degree Microsoft played a hands-on role in this case.  I actually know very little about the conference, and did not hear of it until it had already occurred.  One person who was present did tell me that there were a number of people from industry, e.g. Google, in attendance.

Judging from the posted statements and slides at the above conference URL, it appears that the tone was low-key, and the speakers who spoke directly on H-1B (some were addressing much more general, abstract issues, and others focused on immigration policies of other countries) tended to be people with moderate views on the issue.

One thing that caught my eye in reading the posted materials is that some speakers apparently supported what I consider an unwarranted separation of the “bad” H-1Bs, those that are hired directly from India by the outsourcing companies such as Tata, and the “good” ones, foreign students hired by mainstream firms from U.S. university graduate (typically Master’s) programs.  As many of you know, I consider this dichotomy inaccurate (the mainstream firms abuse H-1B just as much as Tata et al, albeit with a higher class of workers) and destructive (the Senate bill scapegoats the Indian firms but actually expands H-1B for the mainstream).  However, lacking access to the videos, I am not sure that this was indeed what some speakers discussed.

One troubling aspect is that there seemed to be quite a bit of unnuanced discussion of the “contributions” and “importance” of immigrants in STEM.  For example, citing the percentage of immigrants among U.S. patent filers sounds wonderful, but the fact is that the per-capita patenting rate for the immigrants is lower than that of the natives.  This was shown in research by Jennifer Hunt in general (who was one of the organizers of the conference, but who did not present a paper there), and in my own work for the case of former computer science foreign students who went on to work in the U.S. after graduation.  When one views this lower patenting rate in the context of the (mostly indirect but real) displacement of Americans from STEM due to the foreign influx, one sees there is a net loss of talent level and innovation to the U.S. economy, something the speakers should be alarmed at.

By the way, a quote in the Computerworld article is a good example of Microsoft misinformation on the H-1B issue over the years.  A few years ago, for instance, the firm insisted that its H-1Bs are paid “over $100,000 a year to start” until publicly shown wrong.  The current article quotes Microsoft’s Bill Kamela:

Focusing on computer science related degrees, Kamela said that a recent graduate “probably has four job offers today,” and can go shopping for the best salary offer.

That’s quite counter to what I found last Spring, in my queries to placement officers at two universities and my own survey of the graduating students in my department.  Mind you, tech employers are indeed focusing on new grads and there has been a modest uptick in their salaries, but the employers are not hiring a large number of them.

And the cogniscenti among you will note, concerning the above point about going “shopping for the best salary offer,” that that is one of the biggest reasons Microsoft and other mainstream tech firms like hiring H-1Bs so much:  After hire, the foreign workers CAN’T “go shopping,” as they are effectlively immobile (if they are also being sponsored for a green card, typical among the mainstream firms).  As I’ve noted before, this not only means they get smaller raises than do comparable Americans (a finding in the NRC report), but even more important, they can’t leave the employer in the lurch by bolting in the midst of an urgent project.

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11 thoughts on “Low-Key Conference on a Hot Issue

  1. I believe you were trying to be generous toward the National Academy of Sciences in your critique.

    In view of their role in sponsoring the Government-University-Industry-Research-Roundtables (the GUIRRs, at which the H-1B visa was hatched) and their continued STEM shortage-shouting over the past ~30 years (_The Gathering Storm_, _Rising Above the Gathering Storm_, _Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited_, etc., which continue to promote the discredited NSF pipeline study), I don’t consider NAS at all unbiased in matters related to H-1B.

    In the late 1980s up to creation of the H-1b visa, the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Director Erich Bloch instigated these to get an independent funding stream for NSF (its rake-off from H-1B visa application charges) and to allow businesses to import cheap young foreign STEM workers to drive down STEM wages. Because NSF rules required presentations to be published and NAS rules required discussions to be unreported, Director Bloch arranged to have the NAS conduct the GUIRRs while still taking credit for having initiated them.

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  2. >Lindsay Lowell mentioned in his slides that we are not generally getting the best-quality H-1Bs

    Excuse me, but what could that possibly mean? Does he know that there are better potential H-1Bs out there? What if we *are* already getting “the best-quality H-1Bs”? Let me translate. Somebody actually looked, and somebody actually reported, that the average quality of H-1Bs is extremely low. I have worked in H-1B heavy environments for years, and that corresponds to my experience. Of course like any population there is variation, but that population also has an average and that average is low. And for me this has *always* been the real mystery of H-1B, why employers big or small seek out a population of workers with a low level of skills. I can imagine no economic benefit to this, even at a significantly lower level of compensation, a gap in technical level tends to turn into an extended period of effort if nothing else, cancelling any purported savings, and even then the low quality further compromising the ROI of the whole project, not to mention increased continuing maintenance costs.

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    • Lindsay had a slide showing that the percentage of foreigners among patents is lower in the U.S. than for many other countries, which I think he meant as addressing your question that there are better foreign workers that we might try to attract. However, it seems to me that this figure (foreigners’ patents among all patents) doesn’t seem to have any implication for immigration policy.

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    • This is just speculation, but everytime I hear someone complain about the quality of work done by guest workers (not just h1-bs) it reminds me of the 50s, when people often said, “made in Japan” when they wanted to refer to poorly-made goods. 20-30 years later, the Japanese had put American electronics companies out of business, and were a serious threat to the American automotive industry. in the 80s, China’s output was almost exclusively toys, clothes, and shoddy tools. They’ve done a good job of putting just about all of the American manufacturing out of business.

      There is a learning curve that takes a generation or two to ramp up to full power. The first IT companies went to India in the early 90s, and by the late 90s, it was seriously underway, but it didn’t really ramp up until the early 2000s, after Global Crossing and American aid put in the high-speed internet fiber that connected India to North America, and allowed all those Silicon Valley start-ups to move to India.

      The point I am making is that industry has an understanding that this kind of change takes decades. What is going on is the industrialization of IT work – changing programming and software development from being done by a “skilled artisan” to being done by a “technician”.

      This involves two parts – one is ramping up the work force and work force development to bring in millions of easily-trained, easily-replaced technicians, and the other is to build development platforms that can be compartmentalized into easily-learned components that the low-cost, high-turnover work force can handle.

      You ask the question of why businesses bring in low-skilled workers. I have to admit that I think mostly it’s because they don’t understand what they are doing – they are following the advise they read in the academic journals, trade journals, government advice, because they don’t have the technological expertise to go their own independent way.

      But the big companies, the industry leaders who are investing hundreds of millions and billions of dollars setting up training centers in Asia, training people they want to bring in a guest workers, definitely see this as their long-term agenda.

      Another way of looking at it is to put “Mode 4 WTO” in a search engine, and look at the decades of work that has already been done at the highest government levels commodifying workers, and bringing everyone down to the same level of wages, benefits, and protections.

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      • I agree that many employers don’t realize they’re shooting themselves in the foot with their hiring policies.

        But also, note that the former H-1Bs who are now managers naturally turn to the system under which they themselves started work in the U.S. They take it for granted this is the “natural” way to do things.

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      • About half of your argument is true. There is a need to turn artisan, overpaid jobs, into technicians . But there is a huge need for highly skilled workers , not technicians, to meet sophisticated goals.

        American workers are hard workers and excel in studies over other nations including India ( with exceptions) . The stereotype that Americans are lazy is wrong. High tech workers are required to have sharp business skills which are then applied in their jobs to get excellent results. Indians mostly do not have any access to and are not raised in environments which most Americans are exposed to every day.

        Yet, instead of bringing back some of the millions of unemployed workers that are on welfare, we bring in welfare level candidates from other countries like India.

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    • I, too, have spent many of the past 15 years working with the various Visa candidates. They are overwhelmingly under-qualified and are not really performing high tech jobs. They are almost all low tech and medium tech jobs. They are almost entirely under-qualified and it usually takes about 6 temporary immigrants to do the work of one or two qualified American citizens. Companies seem to be more willing to hire more non-immigrants to do less work. Most ironically, they are put in positions of hiring new workers and they discriminate against American citizens almost to a fault. As one recent project manager pointed out to me (he is indian), “Indians are far more discriminatory than Americans”. Most Indians will not cooperate on the job with me and this experience is echoed by the few other Americans I see in Information Technology departments. I work for one of the big Indian firms and I am treated very similarly to Jack Palmer.

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        • Norm,
          I can only speak for EDS & HP regarding mainstream, but this is definitely the case there.

          I took several hard line positions regarding lack of communication FROM the Indian contingent, and the outcry from their management was raucous! So I then took to documenting each communication failure on an individual basis. The outcome was every single worker immediately quit the company, and again their management screamed bloody murder.

          The situation became quite a big “us & them” cultural problem, when all I asked was a two way street in sharing communication about status, or lack of.

          When I directly managed H1Bs who were working for my F1000 customers, I found a pattern in this communication gap. The vast majority of these people were seriously deficient in skills, and they tried to hide it, both from their compatriots, but especially from citizen workers. This experience proceeded my EDS & HP days, which flavored my perspective; I believe much of this separation of cultures occurs to coverup the lack of skills and experience in the H1B & offshored cadre.

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