Yesterday was my second time in the “lion’s den.”
A couple of years ago, I was invited to participate in a private conference on foreign tech workers. The group consisted of two dozen or so Silicon Valley CEOs and other executives, and the meeting ultimately turned out to be a planning session for Mark Zuckerberg’s Fwd.us, a group lobbying for expansive policies on foreign tech workers and other types of immigration. That latter aspect gave the meeting a rather surreal air, given my presence, but people were friendly, and when I joked that I had wandered into the “lion’s den,” everyone laughed. Had I made the same joke in the forum at which I spoke yesterday, I’m not sure many would have found it humorous.
This second “lion’s den” was a meeting of the Engineering Deans Council of the American Society for Engineering Education. In other words, I was speaking to about 150 deans of engineering, certainly a remarkable audience. I spoke in a panel discussion consisting of the two men who had invited me — Jim Garrett and Amr Elnashai — and myself. Chad Evans of the Council on Competitiveness was supposed to be my counterpoint in the discussion, but he unfortunately had to cancel due to a personal issue.
Jim and Amr are Deans of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State, respectively. They are both very warm and open-minded people, and they really made me feel welcome. Unfortunately, some of the deans in the audience were somewhat less welcoming, and the Q&A session was rather tense. (I don’t know whether those who asked the questions were representative of the group as whole. In my account below, I am referring only to those who spoke up.)
In his remarks opening the session (titled Immigration), Jim made a point of asking for a civil discussion, and as an academic speaking to fellow academics, I assumed that the climate would be one of open intellectual inquiry. Since I usually speak to economists and the like, I had been looking forward to this interaction with engineers. Instead, the tone and content of the questions ranged from politely but clearly saying “I don’t believe you” to open hostility.
I must say before continuing that I do understand. Deans are hired in part because they are caring people who have a keen sense of social conscience (I’m sure that some of the academics reading this are questioning my judgment on this 🙂 but I stand by the statement). I am sure, for example, that the people who essentially said (both during the session and privately to me afterward) that age discrimination in tech is justified would have been appalled by such statements had they heard them in their pre-dean days. But if you are a dean, you need to accept the fact that money talks; indeed, money dominates. All major engineering programs rely heavily on industrial donations, ranging from the construction of buildings to endowed professorial chairs to lab equipment to sponsored research and so on. Many deans serve on corporate Boards of Directions, collecting nice fees.
I’ve mentioned before the engineering portion of the Stanford campus, for instance, with Gates Hall (you know who), Hewlett Hall and Packard Hall (one building each), the Gordon and Betty Moore lab building (Intel, Moore’s Law), the Huang Center (NVIDIA) and so on. I’m a great admirer of both NVIDIA the company and Huang the person, but it is clear that relations with industry are key for deans. Indeed, CMU just announced a $35 million donation from Tata Consultancy Services, one of the biggest users of the H-1B work visa.
So deans cannot ignore industry interests. When employers tell deans that there just aren’t enough qualified engineers for them to hire, the deans must listen. And after hearing a constant drumbeat of “engineer shortage, engineer shortage,” it is natural that a dean might internalize this, and dismiss naysayers like me as uninformed dwellers of the Ivory Tower, if not outright kooks. It’s easy for the deans to enter into a mentality in which they fail to notice that “the emperor has no clothes.”
Of course, I knew all this beforehand, but I was nevertheless quite taken aback by the comments, and the tone with which some of them were delivered.
My presentation had the following themes:
- There is no STEM labor shortage, not in general, not in computer science, not in Silicon Valley.
- Employers, including both the “Intels” and the “Infosyses,” use H-1B, OPT and so on in order to obtain cheap, immobile labor.
- A major driver of employing foreign tech workers is to hire younger, thus cheaper, foreigners so as to avoid having to hire older (age 35+), thus more expensive U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
- The average quality of the former foreign students who became part of the U.S. workforce is lower than that of comparable Americans.
- A Staple a Green Card policy (giving automatic green cards to all foreign STEM grad students in the U.S.) would be a terrible idea, as it would (a) exacerbate the above-mentioned age issue since new grads are young, (b) further discourage American students from pursuing graduate study, and (c) result in a decline in PhD production.
It turned out that Staple a Green Card (SAGC) is a key ASEE issue. Indeed, ASEE (specifically some of the people I met yesterday) has been meeting with congressional staffers to lobby for such a program. So, given item (a) in the last bullet above and my repeated emphasis on the age issue in my slides, it is not surprising that many of those in the audience seized upon my age issue.
They openly defended the fact that employers are bypassing older Americans in hiring young new foreign grads. (Interestingly, no one challenged my statement.) The first one to speak in the Q&A, a woman with an Australian accent, spoke quite forcefully, saying (this is close to verbatim),
We live in a global economy! We need more young workers! Our birthrate is below replacement level! Nations with an older workforce have stagnant economies!
Another, a man from Georgia, stood up and urged the crowd to defend the status quo. After the session, I went up to him and introduced myself. He said,
Employers are going to strive to save in labor costs. They want the lowest-cost workers, at acceptable quality, that they can get, and that is young new graduates. That is the reality.
When I asked him whether government policy should aid and abet this by allowing employers to hire young foreign workers, he gave the standard lobbyist answer (Paul Donnelly, you’ll love this): “With SAGC, they WON’T be foreigners; they’ll be Americans!” Somehow, even a sophisticated engineering professor doesn’t see this as a shell game argument. This dean also added, by the way, that immigration would “equilibrate” wages around the world — ours go down, those in the Third World go up (though he did add that he doesn’t necessarily approve of this).
In my presentation, I stressed how important it is to complement data analysis with qualitative insights into the processes that generate those numbers. I used Ptolemy’s epicycles to show how disastrously analyses can go wrong from fitting equations to data. Surely, I thought, this is something engineers can relate to. And if the topic at hand weren’t so fraught with issues of money and power, I believe my point would have been readily understood.
Instead, whenever I gave specific examples, e.g. of older American engineers who fall victim to policies of H-1B and the like, to illustrate the hard data that I presented, I got the standard response: “You can’t extrapolate from a couple of individual cases!” — completely ignoring the fact that I had in fact presented studies with lots of hard data.
And when I reminded the audience of that fact, the response was to attack my data (which was not just mine, but that of many researchers). This statement of one woman, spoken in a rather nervous tone, was typical:
Something must be wrong with your statistics. Your findings are completely different from what we are told by people in industry. There is a problem in your analysis somewhere, something is missing.
One woman claimed that many of the statistical papers I had cited were “20 to 25 years old,” which wasn’t true at all. Most were less than 10 years old, and the oldest, 1998, had been updated and expanded to a full book in 2009.
As a statistician, I had been particularly counting on the high level of numeracy of a group of engineers. I noted, for instance, that industry-cited (and typically industry-sponsored) studies analyzing the percentage of patents with at least one immigrant inventor, or tech firms with at least one immigrant founder, are badly distortionary, and that one must look instead at per-capita rates of patenting, entrepreneurship and so on. Though that might have been an effective point had Chad Evans been there, instead those who spoke relied more on their own experiences (“I had a brilliant student”) or claims (apparently never questioned) made to them by the industry. One gentleman from Utah said that someone from industry had told him of there being 15,000 unfilled software developments in the state, and that all foreign students could be absorbed. (When I asked whether the older Americans could be absorbed, he said nothing.)
Since National Science Foundation research funding is so vital to engineering schools, they also didn’t like my noting that a 1989 internal NSF report called for SAGC in order to attract foreign students, in turn in order to hold down engineering PhD salaries. A side effect, the report said, would be that stagnant salaries would drive Americans away from doctoral study. The foreign students came in large numbers even without SAGC, and today we see that most graduate programs consist heavily of foreign students. SAGC would make that even worse. I asked the audience, “Do we want a policy that would discourage Americans from pursuing graduate study?”
Interestingly, there was one point of apparent agreement. As noted above, I had stated that SAGC would reduce PhD enrolment. Currently a PhD will typically get the foreign student his/her green card in two or three years (EB-1), as opposed to ten years or more (EB-3). If the foreign students could obtain an automatic, quick green card after just a Master’s, why bother with a doctorate?
I mentioned to one person after the sesssion that there is a previous historical experience to guide our thinking, the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992. This gave automatic green cards to all Chinese nationals who had been in the U.S. during the 1989 student protests in Beijing, and lots of students quit their doctoral study as soon as the act was signed into law.
The ASEE people apparently have the same concern, and they told me that they have been pressing Congress to restrict SAGC to PhDs, so far without success. I explained to them why they were being rebuffed: The Intels want people with MS degrees (a PhD is not of interest to most tech employers), and the Infosyses want to get their hands on all those H-1B visas that would be liberated by SAGC (which would have its own special visa); the number of PhDs is paltry compared to the Master’s.
In spite of the somewhat strained atmosphere, I think that I did succeed in getting people to think about issues they had either taken for granted or not thought about at all. I hope the “silent majority” were not as negative as those who spoke up.
I must again thank Jim and Amr for the very gracious hospitality. Mi casa es su casa is deeply appreciated, even if the “casa” is a lion’s den. 🙂