Is There Really a "Shortage" of High-Tech Workers? Read This Book

Do we really need hundreds of thousands of new high-tech foreign workers like H-1Bs each year as industry and political leaders keep telling us?

Or are these massive inflows of aliens, most with only a bachelor's degree, just another way of reducing wage bills for already prosperous corporations?

If you are interested in serious, well-documented answers to those questions Michael Teitelbaum's new book Falling Behind? Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent is a must read.

The author has impressive credentials — he's a PhD demographer with ties to Harvard Law, Princeton, Oxford, and the Ford and Sloan Foundations, as well as two presidential appointments to two different immigration policy commissions. To the best of my knowledge he never worked for an advocacy organization. (Disclosure: nearly 20 years ago he was the program officer on a couple of immigration research projects I did for the Sloan Foundation.)

Falling Behind? is not primarily about immigration, but it provides essential background information regarding our policies about high-tech migrants. It deals with the specialized labor markets — in the United States and elsewhere — for people with training in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Teitelbaum's cool voice analyzes the repeated patterns of alarm, boom, and then bust in our nation's policies about the STEM labor force. There was, for instance, the Sputnik crisis, when the Soviet Union managed to put a small object into orbit before we could do the same. The doomsday people were sure that America was falling behind in the race for technological superiority and that there was grievous shortage of U.S. scientific talent, and that we must increase funding for research drastically and educate far more STEM people.

Whatever the merits of those alarming arguments, they were successful and the federal dollars flowed. That was the boom. Next, in the bust, we found ourselves with more STEM skills than we needed, and American students noticed, and started looking at other careers.

Teitelbaum records five such cycles, and in the more recent ones the alarm phase has included badly documented (in my mind) claims that America's capacity for high-tech was collapsing and the only solution was to bring in large number of indentured (if educated) foreign workers, largely through the H-1B "temporary" worker program.

The author politely dismisses the claims that there are widespread shortages of STEM workers, but notes with care the strenuous efforts of various interest groups (including Silicon Valley, immigration lawyers, many universities, and the Chamber of Commerce) to make the opposite point. Unfortunately, those voices of authority (and moneyed interests) carried the day on issue after issue; there never has been, sadly, anything like the coal miners' union of my youth to speak up for America's home-grown scientific talent.

In a book full of interesting insights let me cite just two of them.

First: we have all read repeatedly about how badly the U.S. education system handles science and math, and how far behind we are to places like Finland, among many others, when it comes to the average scores of American students on standardized STEM tests. The mas-migration people, notably the employers, have used these test results to argue that we need still more alien workers.

Teitelbaum makes the point that, while the relatively low average scores reflect the decentralization of education policy, and the lamentable widespread failures of U.S. schools working with the poor, they have virtually nothing to do with the supply of able, high-tech, citizen workers. He writes (on p. 69):

The poor performance of the lowest quartiles of U.S. K-12 students pulls down the national performance averages, even while the top quartiles of U.S. students perform at high levels. Second, the science and engineering workforce represents only a very small fraction of the total workforce and is overwhelmingly drawn from the high-performing tiers of U.S. secondary school students.

He goes on to point out that most of the nations with higher average K-12 scores do not have the wide range of scores that we have in the United States; that their educational systems produce much more uniform results than ours do.

Second: he states (pp. 89-91):

It is truly remarkable how routinely the characterizations of these [H-1B] visas put forward in political and media discussions differ in fundamental ways from the facts.

First ... these visas are often described as limited to "high-skill" technical workers, sometimes described as "the best and the brightest" in the world. Yet the facts are that the visas require education only up to the level of a U.S. bachelor's degree.

Second, because the expansion of H-1B visas numbers has been so energetically promoted by U.S. companies such as Microsoft and Intel, many seem to believe that such companies are the primary users of such visas ... [when] by far the largest users of H-1-B visas are companies that are "off-shore outsourcers", many of which are based in India.

Third ... many express surprise when they learn that the H-1B visa ... has never required any attempt by an employer to hire a domestic worker.

This is a highly useful report on a set of complex issues, and should be required reading for all members of Congress.

Teiitelbaum will, incidentally, discuss his book at a seminar sponsored by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, on Thursday morning, May 8, between 10:00 and 11:30 am at 1333 H. Street, NW. The meeting is open to the public but RSVPs are needed; for details see here.