Professors Compare Silicon Valley’s Labor Shortage Myth, Labor Surplus Reality

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IT technicians

A group of U.S. policy professors wrote an opinion piece that appeared Sunday in USA Today, taking on Silicon Valley’s corporate leadership for propagating the false argument that America needs more liberal immigration laws to supplement a severely understaffed tech-sector economy.

The group, which includes economics, public policy, computer science and planning professors from major U.S. universities, challenged the claims of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and even President Barack Obama — all of whom have justified the need to relax immigration standards by outlining the dearth of homegrown workers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector.

“This claim is echoed by everyone from President Obama and Rupert Murdoch to Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates,” the professors wrote. “Yet within the past month, two odd things occurred: Census reported that only one in four STEM degree holders is in a STEM job, and Microsoft announced plans to downsize its workforce by 18,000 jobs.”

That observation makes for a logical, if anecdotal, counterargument to the likes of Zuckerberg and Obama. But the authors press further, offering a step-by-step deconstruction of the Silicon Valley position — one that is now pressuring Congress and the White House to expand the guest worker and green card programs for STEM-qualified foreign nationals.

The group prefaces its observations with a significant disclaimer: “As longtime researchers of the STEM workforce and immigration who have separately done in-depth analyses on these issues, and having no self-interest in the outcomes of the legislative debate, we feel compelled to report that none of us has been able to find any credible evidence to support the IT industry’s assertions of labor shortages.”

Then the writers offer facts:

If a [STEM labor] shortage did exist, wages would be rising as companies tried to attract scarce workers. Instead, legislation that expanded visas for IT personnel during the 1990s has kept average wages flat over the past 16 years. Indeed, guest workers have become the predominant source of new hires in these fields.

Those supporting even greater expansion seem to have forgotten about the hundreds of thousands of American high-tech workers who are being shortchanged — by wages stuck at 1998 levels, by diminished career prospects and by repeated rounds of layoffs.

The facts are that, excluding advocacy studies by those with industry funding, there is a remarkable concurrence among a wide range of researchers that there is an ample supply of American workers (native and immigrant, citizen and permanent resident) who are willing and qualified to fill the high-skill jobs in this country. The only real disagreement is whether supply is two or three times larger than the demand.

But why would the tech industry misrepresent the facts about the domestic labor market from which it draws its talent?

The tech industry’s promotion of expanded temporary visas (such as the H-1B) and green cards is driven by its desire for cheap, young and immobile labor. It is well documented that loopholes enable firms to legally pay H-1Bs below their market value and to continue the widespread age discrimination acknowledged by many in the tech industry.

… IT industry leaders have spent lavishly on lobbying to promote their STEM shortage claims among legislators. The only problem is that the evidence contradicts their self-interested claims.

The tech sector’s motivation to devalue the asking price for entry into its skilled labor force is, at the end of the day, understandable. The profit motive will propel a business to make money by saving money, when possible, until market forces stabilize the practice or until the industry runs up against a legal barrier.

The more problematic question, though, is why the Obama Administration, along with some House members now considering the tech sector’s recommendations, are so receptive to Silicon Valley’s call for a cut-rate workforce — a workforce whose market value tightens in inverse proportion to the loosening of U.S. immigration policy.

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

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