One of those testifying in the recent Senate hearing on H-1B was German immigrant Bjorn Billhardt, CEO of Enspire, a startup the develops e-learning software. Apparently, during the course of his testimony, Billhardt offered to introduce American IT workers to employers. IT worker Virgil Bierschwale, who lives in Billhardt’s general region, wrote an open letter to Billhardt on his blog, asking to avail himself of Billhardt’s offer of introductions. According to Bierschwale’s blog posts, Billhardt never responded. And even after American IT worker Jay Palmer, who also testified at the hearing, personally met with Billhardt and asked the latter to contact Bierschwale, there was still no response.
Billhardt may or may not know someone worth introducing Bierschwale to. But given Billhardt’s claims, he at the very least owes Bierschwale the courtesy of a reply.
One can’t blame Bierschwale for being reminded of the old saying, “Talk is cheap.” In fact, I’ve seen this pattern — someone from the industry claims employers are desperate to hire, but when one offers to connect them with qualified workers, they aren’t interested — occur many times. I’ll give a couple of examples, which I believe will be illuminating.
Some years ago, something like the year 2000, I was invited to appear as a guest on a Bay Area TV talk show, hosted by the late Pete Wilson, a prominent local anchor. The other guest was Coetta Chambers, VP for HR at Intel. A very high-level Intel executive, Tracy Koon, was also present, but not on camera. She said she was Chambers’ ride, though I suspect her job was to make sure Chambers didn’t say something “wrong.” Yet what was most damning was what Chambers did NOT say.
I told Chambers, on camera, that I could help remedy the desperate labor shortage she described at Intel, as I had CVs for five or six well-qualified engineers and programmers that I could forward to her. She greeted my offer with awkward silence; she just sat there. I repeated the offer, but again no response for her.
Similarly, a March 17, 1999 PR Newswire statement stated (I’ve adapted this material from my University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform article),
“Something is wrong when you put an ad in the Washington Post for a software engineer and the only qualified applicants you receive are from non-U.S. Citizens,'” said John Harrison, CEO and co-founder of Ecutel, one of the nation’s most promising high-tech companies.
In testimony before the House Science Committee today, Harrison told of the extraordinary cost and difficulty he has experienced trying to keep his company staffed with engineers. Harrison asked our nation’s lawmakers to proceed on a two-pronged approach — dramatically stepped up math and science education for today’s students, and for the short-term, eased immigration laws…
Ecutel’s Web site said that the firm was seeking people with the following skills:
Intermediate and Senior Engineer Positions Looking for several energetic and self-motivated Software Engineers with at least 5 years of experience or familiarity in 2 or more of the following: C/C++, TCP/IP, Mobile IP, IPSec, Device Driver, Internet RFC, Mobile Computing, GUI, RDBMS, Networking, Security, Web Development, Microsoft/Unix OSes, general Internet communication protocols.
Bill Halchin had years of work experience in six of the skills this ad expressed interest in, considerably more than the threshhold of two stated by the ad itself. Yet he was not even called for an interview when he applied to the firm, even after two followup e-mail messages to Harrison. A subsequent inquiry under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showed that Harrison was paying many of his H-1B programmers only $35,000 per year, far below the market rate.
And of course, the following year, Congress, apparently trusting people like Harrison (not to mention Intel), enacted the second increase in the H-1B cap in two years.
And here’s one I’ve told before. In 1998, I spoke at a conference organized by the industry and the Dept. of Commerce. Afterward, a man approached me and said, “You’re wrong. I’m a tech employer, and I really am desperate to hire.” I replied, “My wife is a software engineer. I’ll ask her to apply to your firm. Her surname is different from mine, so you won’t know it’s my wife, and we’ll see how desperate you are.” He immediately backpedalled, saying, “She’s probably too expensive for us!” THAT of course was the nature of his labor “shortage” and “need” to hire H-1Bs.
As the French say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Today we see the industry making exactly the same pitches to Congress as they were doing 17 years ago (more H-1Bs in the short run, develop STEM education for a long-run fix to the “shortage”), and moreover, we see Congress giving credence to the disingenuous statements of people like Billhardt, and 17 years earlier, Harrison.
And one more point about Billhardt: In his verbal statements during the hearing, he said that it wasn’t enough for an American applicant to his firm to have the desired technological skill sets. No, what is also crucial, Billhardt said, was that the applicant be a “cultural fit” into Billhardt’s team. A quick glance at Billhardt’s YOUNG team would seem to indicate that the culture he was referring to was that of 20-somethings, with maybe the odd 32-year-old being marginally acceptable. He may have one or two older accountants, say, but older programmers need not apply. Once again, the age issue is central to H-1B, a tragically overlooked point by not only Congress but also even the critics of the H-1B program.
Billhardt’s testimony, of course, repeats the claim that “for every 100 H-1B workers, an additional 183 jobs are created for workers born in the United States.” omitting mention of the fact that this figure is from an industry-sponsored study. Sadly, none of the senators called him on that point.