H-1B Employers Want Quantity, Not Quality

By John Miano on November 25, 2013

In my years working in the computer industry I have encountered many workers on H-1B visas. The most highly skilled among them were of average skill. Nearly all were incompetent. When I hear H-1B workers called "highly skilled" or "the best and brightest" I always chuckle.

My personal experience is entirely consistent with what you see in the available data. On H-1B labor condition applications, employers using skills-based prevailing wage claims classified 56 percent of the workers at the lowest skill level (of four). The lowest two skill levels combined accounted for 87 percent. So employers themselves claimed that nearly all the workers were at a skill level warranting below-average pay. Others looking at the data have found the same.

For those not familiar with the industry, this creates an apparent contradiction. Why do employers crave below-average workers?

The explanation for this is simple. Look where most of the H-1B workers go: to companies that provide contract labor. This ranges from the big bad Indian bodyshops to U.S. accounting and technology firms.

In that industry incompetent workers provide more revenue than highly skilled workers.

Let me give an example. A number of years ago I was working with a consulting company on a project with 30 developers. One day the manager responsible for tracking the project statistics needed me to explain some project tasks. I got a peek at the productivity numbers.

I, alone, was completing over half the tasks on the project. Four other people combined were doing nearly all the rest. The remaining 25 developers on the project were effectively doing nothing.

But the most valuable members of the project were the 25 people doing nothing. They got paid the least and they generated the biggest portion of the project revenue. They were profit-generating machines.

Look at the news accounts of the Obamacare website disaster. If you wanted productivity, programmers would have a proper working environment. Instead, they were "crammed" into conference rooms. They were working long hours. They were rewriting code. I might be mistaken in this particular instance, but it sure sounds like this is a bill-by-the-hour project and the contractor was milking it for maximum body-hours. Clearly no one was serious about project success or cost effectiveness.

Why do customers tolerate this nonsense? First, you are dealing with the Harvard MBA mentality. For those outside the industry, a programmer is a programmer is a programmer. Contracting for a programmer at $80/hour looks like a better deal than one at $90/hour.

Second, contractors are rarely held accountable. The big ones are skilled at contracts that get them off the hook, especially when they know the project will be a disaster. This is particularly easy in the body-per-hour billing model.

Third, the First Law of Software Consulting works in their favor. The First Law states, "For every consulting company that screws up a project, there is at least one senior manager who screwed up by hiring them." The corollary to the first law is "The senior management in the company will be just as eager to cover up the disaster as the consulting company will be."

We can see that in the Obamacare disaster. The consulting companies can blame "last minute changes". Yes, DHS officials screwed up and are not being held accountable. The computer consulting companies took the project and did not deliver. We have this giant disaster and no one will be held accountable.

That brings us to the Second Law of Computer Consulting, which states "Big consulting companies will never walk away from a undeliverable project." If there is revenue to be made, they will not say no. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent of a building code in software to prevent companies from embarking on disastrous projects. If it can be billed by the hour, even a disaster known in advance can be a moneymaker for the vendor.

That is why we see the huge demand for H-1B computer programmers. Cheap, incompetent programmers mean maximum profit for consulting companies. It is bad for the economy long term, but so what?