The OldTraining Trick

Haven’t posted for a while, though I do have some news events to comment on. I’ve been saving up various pieces here and there. But this one I feel compelled to post now.

Over the years, the tech industry lobbyists have found that one magic incantation fools everyone into ignoring the problems of the H-1B work visa: training.

Many of you no doubt are aware of Joe Biden’s call for teaching unemployed coal miners to code. It’s almost a “Let them eat cake” kind of attitude, not because it’s far fetched in terms of the capability of the lesser-educated to become coders — coding just requires good common sense, clear thinking, and a love of solving puzzles — but because it’s absurd to say many tech firms would deign to hire more than a token number of these “coalgrammers.”

Now we have Google offering online courses in Python coding, to fill an alleged shortage of Pythonistas. The courses will be offered at community colleges. This is exactly the grand plan that Congress hatched in 1998 to excuse doubling the H-1B cap. The idea was, hire H-1Bs now but train Americans so that H-1Bs will no longer be needed. A few years later, one of the IT trade magazines ran a major piece showing that this just didn’t work — complete with a quote from Sun Micro (major player at the time, later acquired by Oracle) that “We never intended this program to supply us with the workers we need.” The Commerce Dept. (GW Bush administration) then shut down the program. Talk about deja vu.

Google is working with Ivanka Trump on this, and there was an illuminating related interview of her dad by Laura Ingraham recently. Trump seems to really believe H-1B is no problem, because we “need” the foreign students for our tech industry, and important in the present context, because he’s going to create so many tech jobs that there will be plenty of jobs to go around.

This too is deja vu for me. Some years ago I was asked to speak to a top aide of a certain California senator, and that’s exactly what he told me too; in the next few years, there would be so many tech jobs created by the mobile app boom that no techie would have trouble finding work. Of course, it didn’t work that way.

The retraining program created in the 1998 act was in large part in response to the fact, pointed out by me and others, that many older programmers and engineers were having trouble finding work, in spite of the tech boom then in progress. The idea was to provide coursework that would enable the “elderly” (age 35+) to learn new programming languages and the like. But any good techie is quite capable of learning on his/her own, and much more important, the industry wouldn’t want to hire them anyway, even with retraining, as they are too expensive.

That is the real driver behind the “shortage” claims — younger labor is cheaper (and young foreign labor even cheaper).

And similarly, the industry’s claim that “Only the young new graduates have the latest skills” is obviously phony. Who taught those young new graduates those skills? It was old guys like me. 🙂

And finally, once again: If the Americans are the ones who need the training, why are they being forced to train their H-1B replacements, who are hired ostensibly because the H-1Bs, not the Americans, are the ones with the needed skill sets.

30 thoughts on “The OldTraining Trick

  1. The daughter is intent on helping a company that held a group therapy session on its premises (video leaked) after her father was elected President, a company that is actively engaged in ensuring that her father doesn’t win re-election. Truly, the Trumps are chumps.

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  2. I think part of the problem is that a lot of this “training” is actually marketing, intended to promote usage of a company’s products within industry sectors. For example, the Google Python course seems to be aimed at moving people and customers to its cloud services.

    This is not to say they’re not useful courses, but I think they’re more for people who already hold positions in organizations.

    Similar confusions used to apply when economists estimated future requirements for Computer Science graduates. They would take the number of people who needed “digital skills” and then assume every such person would be a Computer Science graduate. In fact, most of the digital skills had nothing to with CS and were part of other professions.

    Another issue is that politicians tend to be shown stuff that’s easy to understand, like html, and then wrongly conclude all software development is the same.

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    • Watching any government hearing on the subject of tech is enough to make you despair or laugh uncontrollably. Very few legislators on the relevant committees know anything about tech.

      Maxine Waters is the chair of the financial committee and seeing her on it is frightening.

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  3. I see the continuing addition of H1-b to the US workforce as worsening and leading to corruption of the IT industry thru the creation of an army of expert hackers and the training of foreign workers instead of US engineers.

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    • BS to the hackers. Maybe with Chinese. The Indians I work with are very sensitive about staying off USCIS radars. They are exceptionally compliant and law-abiding.
      They are taking jobs from “engineers”, but that’s for another post.
      It’s frustrating that most of the entry level posts I see here and at past jobs are H4 visa recipients. Scrum masters, meeting organizers and systems analysts shouldn’t qualify for H1B visas.

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  4. > Many of you no doubt are aware of Joe Biden’s call for teaching unemployed coal miners to code.

    Yes, I always liked the joke that “We need to hurry up and teach those unemployed coal miners to code so that they can train their H-1B replacements”! Of course that’s not funny for referencing unemployed coal miners, it’s funny because it’s so close to the truth. As you say, tech firms would likely just hire a token number of the retrained coal miners and lay them off in a year or two when nobody was looking.

    Regarding training, I can share the perspective of an older worker. When I was laid off three years ago, I took a number of online courses to brush up on the latest technologies. I quickly found that that training had zero value as far as getting a job. At best, it might help you in an interview but, within a short while, I wasn’t even getting interviews. Now, I only study topics that interest me in order to work on my own projects. I no longer plan on getting hired. I study topics that I can use on projects that interest me or that can otherwise benefit me (like investing). If I should become especially skilled in some area and someone should decide to hire me, that will be fine. But I’m definitely not planning on it. I’ve long noticed that, even though my resume links to my portfolio of projects, no potential employers ever look at it.

    I suspect that the questionable value of much training applies to younger workers as well. It seems to me that most specific training should be done by the company using the specific skills. They should find candidates who have the general skill and/or experience but then train them after giving them or promising them jobs. In any event, my experience is that most of this training is useless for older workers, at least when it comes to finding jobs.

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  5. Norm –

    Well said. Also, …..
    1) The “labor shortage” has persisted for 30 years. If employers have had trouble finding qualified workers, why did we design the H-1B program around short-term 3-year work visas? If we were honest with ourselves, we would welcome foreign workers to be part of our labor market with full labor protections and mobility. The fact that the H-1B program has remained temporary for so long proves that the real policy goal is to have a steady supply of 800,000 disposable precarious workers with no bargaining power.

    2) ATT has added a new wrinkle to the “training” question. https://www.axios.com/trump-att-outsourcing-h1b-visa-foreign-workers-1f26cd20-664a-4b5f-a2e3-361c8d2af502.html
    ATT contracts out a work package. ATT rebadges” its workers to the contractor. A worker who declines is treated as having quit – no severance or unemployment. They work at the new job for one year, training their co-workers. Then they are laid off, having wasted a year with a company offering much worse layoff protection.

    ATT has created its own training program at the expense of its own workers!

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    • The AT&T method has been common in the industry for some time now, I believe.

      Your comments correctly show the hypocrisy of the industry and Congress, but I strongly object to the notion that giving the foreign workers full labor mobility solves the problem. The central issue is that young workers are cheaper, and any “mobility-based” program would bring in mainly young workers. Older (age 35+) Americans would still be at a disadvantge.

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      • As a SunOS (eventually Solaris) sys-admin going back to the early 90s and in a handful of shops, I’ve never heard Sun Micro used. Sun (if you are going for the shorthand form) or Sun Microsystems if you are not.

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        • Type “sun micro” on google WITH the quotes.

          We get results from reuters, wsj, la times, wired, bloomberg, ieee, etc. with Sun Micro in the tile/headline. Yes, after the headline Sun Microsystems is usually included.

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    • Sun has been in the news lately with regards to the Google v. Oracle lawsuit that is headed to the US Supreme Court this March. The case is about application programming interfaces (API)s.

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  6. Anyone who recalls the outsourcing of the blue-collar workers during the 1970s knows the way it goes down: first say the current work force isn’t enough to fill demand, second call the US workers dumb, third flood the market with foreigners (by offshoring or outsourcing), fourth fire older workers. Then gather up bags of money for investors while Americans lose yet another avenue out of poverty and into the middle class.

    Thanks for this article, you nailed it.

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  7. The “elderly” 35+ also includes defense industry programmers that have been thrown out to the street when replaced by HCL foreign visa workers (non classified programming only) and then find themselves working remotely on projects based in Europe such as hypersonic missile development that will end up going to Russia or China and not the USA. What else can the “elderly” do when training does not equate to getting hired? Call them traitors to work on these foreign based defense projects but why end up in California’s tent camps as the alternative?

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  8. It’s simply obvious that the “training trick” is done for 3 reasons: 1) to show that they are doing something 2) to delay the reckoning for another educational cycle 3) to confuse the issue.

    H-1B, O-1, OPT, L-1, J-1, TN-1, E-2 proponents (there are more visas than H-1B) will do anything and everything to avoid the discussion of the destruction of the USA technical workforce by H-1Bs. It’s IT workers. It’s engineering professionals. It’s statisticians and biostatisticians. It’s nurses. It’s teachers. It’s architecture professionals. It’s accountants. Every technical profession is being destroyed by the excessive numbers and age of the visa workers.

    And if S386 passes, it’s game over for USA professionals.

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  9. I think we are being fooled by The Old Old Workers Are More Expensive Trick.

    If age discrimination is rampant then old workers can not be expensive workers because they are less desirable than young workers.

    If racial discrimination is rampant then black workers can not be expensive workers because they are less desirable than white workers.

    If gender discrimination is rampant then women workers can not be expensive workers because they are less desirable than male workers.

    Blacks and women are generally paid less than white or male workers. It follows that older workers should be paid less than young workers.

    Age discrimination is so rampant that old workers are not given the opportunity to work for low wages. Some career experts recommend that old workers explain to potential employers that they are willing to sign a contract. The contract states that the worker will not seek work at another company for a higher salary for a certain number of years. IRS tax returns can be used to verify if the employee breaks the contract. I have searched the Internet and have not found this to be a successful tactic.

    A smart company would hire an old, unemployed for a year, worker at low wages knowing that the old worker will have a hard time changing jobs due to his age. Of course this does not happen a lot. That’s how bad the age discrimination problem is. Companies use The Old Old Workers Are More Expensive Trick to fool the worker and the public instead of telling the truth.

    California has a law, “An employer shall not, orally or in writing, personally or through an agent, seek salary history information, including compensation and benefits, about an applicant for employment.” So in California/SV, the employer can not use The Old Old Workers Are More Expensive Trick because they do not know the salary history of the old worker. Of course, the old worker does not get hired.

    I not sure that what I am writing is critical thinking or crazy thinking. Just trying to be provocative.

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    • HR Depts. are pretty strict about age-specific salary levels. So they are the first obstacle to an older worker volunteering to work cheap.

      Second, of all the older people who have discussed their problems with me re finding work, none of them have been asked to sign a contract.

      Third, indeed they never even have a chance to offer to work cheap. They’re weeded out at the lower levels, e.g. by the job req stating New Or Recent Graduate. Many, MANY have told me they are rejected on the grounds of being “overqualifed.”

      Fourth, note too that older people have higher health care costs. It’s not just a question of wages.

      Fifth, you are assuming that older workers are perceived as providing less value to firms. That is generally NOT the perception; instead, the employer asks, “Would this person bring in enough extra value to justify the higher wage?”, and they answer No.

      Finally, every time the H-1B cap is hit, I’ve observed that older workers start getting more phone calls. Draw your own conclusions.

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      • It seems like it would make sense for an employer to follow a kind of “Money Ball” strategy, in which they purposely looked for older workers who were talented but overlooked and thus willing to work for less than what should be their market value.

        Is the shutout of older workers a free market failure, caused by a failure of recruiter imagination? Or does it just not make financial sense to seek out older workers when there’s a steady stream of young H-1B and OPT workers?

        By the way, I’m one of these older workers who is starting to feel like I’m last of the Mohicans, as steadily my office looks more like I somehow move to India without even knowing it. In the 1990s, I worked for a Fortune 50 company, which trained and hired Americans with unrelated college degrees and a passing score on an aptitude test. These were people who were transitioning from unrelated careers (i.e., housewife, artist, Spanish teacher, childcare worker, veteran, etc). And they become productive workers too. So much opportunity has been lost and continues to be lost, as a result of the continuous, mass influx.

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  10. Dont obviously forget the other big attraction of H1B workers- they are trapped at their jobs and if they leave they can be eventually deported, so they work 70 hour weeks for the same wages as citizens.

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  11. As is more and more apparent, Tucker Carlson is the friend of the USA worker. He’s conservative, but he’s usually right, and he is often there before anyone else.

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  12. Professor Matloff,

    it is great to see you back to blogging again. There is another angle on the age discrimination that I like to bring to your attention. IT jobs these days are sweatshops from hell. You are normally judged on how little sleep you can survive on. Anything over 3-4 hours a night is frowned upon. An older worker does not have the energy to survive extreme sleep deprivation like someone in their 20’s.

    This is normally left out of the visa-worker discussions, working conditions in addition to low wages True most visa-worker infested shops pay their workers cheap and is progressively getting cheaper. What burns me when these shops show up as paying their workers mostly in the range of $60k-$80k a year. What is left out is that if these workers are working 7 days a week and are only allowed to sleep about 4 hours a night, then the actual wage being paid to them is less than minimum wage or up to $10 an hour at best.

    This makes visa-worker far more attractive than shipping these jobs offshore. You don’t have to build an offshore office and you have them under your wing right here on U.S soil for less than offshore wages.

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  13. I didn’t see anybody mention Boeing. The destruction of Boeing’s reputation and maybe its existence, is the real consequence of all that cheap foreign labor. While Boeing’s management and their concentration on the bottom line is definitely responsible for hiring $9 an hour programmers in India, they are not the only ones who are still doing it. The road to profits is leading them to bankruptcy.

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    • Boeing’s airplane division employs a handful of H-1B workers, out of about 12,000 directly employed engineers. Boeing suppliers and contractors bring in lots of H-1B workers. Boeing’s problems, which are legion, come from the business model and leadership message, not the workers. If Boeing gets their minds right, they can make about 10,000 improvement to the operation. Improving their immigration practices would be 2 or 3 of those.

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