Commentary | STEM

Bill Gates’ tech worker fantasy: Column

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This op-ed, written by Ron Hira, Paula Stephan et al., originally ran on USA Today.

Business executives and politicians endlessly complain that there is a “shortage” of qualified Americans and that the U.S. must admit more high-skilled guest workers to fill jobs in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math. This claim is echoed by everyone from President Obama and Rupert Murdoch to Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

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. Even so, the House is considering legislationthat, like the Senate immigration bill before it, would increase to unprecedented levels the supply of high-skill guest workers and automatic green cards to foreign STEM students.

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.

Stagnant wages

If a 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.

Unfortunately, companies are exploiting the large existing flow of guest workers to deny American workers access to STEM careers and the middle-class security that should come with them. Imagine, then, how many more Americans would be frozen out of the middle class if politicians and tech moguls succeeded in doubling or tripling the flow of guest workers into STEM occupations.

Redundant reforms

Another major, yet often overlooked, provision in the pending legislation would grant automatic green cards to any foreign student who earns a graduate degree in a STEM field, based on assertions that foreign graduates of U.S. universities are routinely being forced to leave. Such claims are incompatible with the evidence that such graduates have many paths to stay and work, and indeed the “stay rates” for visiting international students are very high and have shown no sign of decline. The most recent study finds that 92% of Chinese Ph.D. students stay in the U.S. to work after graduation.

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 valueand to continue the widespread age discrimination acknowledged by many in the tech industry.

When considering the credibility of the industry’s repetitive claims of “shortages,” it is worth recalling its history of misbehavior in hiring and employment. The most recent example was the proposed $300 million legal settlement of a class action against companies such as Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe for anti-competitive collusion to suppress the pay of highly skilled employees, including unlawful agreements to not recruit each others’ workers.

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.

Ron Hira is a professor of public policy at Howard University. Paula Stephan is a professor of economics at Georgia State University.Hal Salzman is a Rutgers University professor of planning & public policy at the J.J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. Michael Teitelbaum is senior research associate at the Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program. Norm Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California-Davis.


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