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H-1B Workers Not Best Or Brightest, Study Says

Skilled foreign worker programs are causing a U.S. brain drain, an Economic Policy Institute report says.

Thomas Claburn

March 1, 2013

4 Min Read

2012 Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights

2012 Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights


2012 Salary Survey: 12 Career Insights (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Managers of high-tech companies insist they need more H-1B visas for foreign IT workers to ensure access to the best and brightest workforce. But a study released on Thursday finds that imported IT talent is often less talented than U.S. workers.

The study, published by the Economic Policy Institute and conducted by Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California in Davis, compares U.S. and foreign IT workers' salaries, rates of PhD awards, doctorates earned and employment in research and development to determine whether those admitted to the U.S. under the H-1B visa program have skills beyond those of U.S. IT workers.

Based on Matloff's analysis, there's no evidence that those granted H-1B visas offer exceptional talents.

"We thus see that no best and brightest trend was found for the former foreign students in either computer science or electrical engineering," Matloff writes in his report. "On the contrary, in the CS case the former foreign students appear to be somewhat less talented on average, as indicated by their lower wages, than the Americans."

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The report concludes that the H-1B program and related work programs are not making the U.S. companies more innovative and are in some ways making them less so.

The technology industry sees things differently. It insists there's a shortage of IT talent in the U.S., based on the lack of students graduating from science, technology, engineering and math disciplines (STEM). Earlier this week, Code.org, a nonprofit organization that aims to encourage more students to learn programming, published statements from tech industry leaders that reflected the widespread assertion that there's a tech talent shortage.

As Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg put it in one such statement, "Our policy at Facebook is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find. There just aren't enough people who are trained and have these skills today."

Other tech industry leaders have been saying as much for years, which is why immigration programs like H-1B exist. And the tech industry's sustained complaints about lack of access to technical talent recently lead to the introduction of the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, which aims to expand the number of visas available under the H-1B program.

Outside the U.S. there are similar claims of an IT worker shortage. Last month, European Commission VP Neelie Kroes bemoaned the growing digital skills gap that threatens European competitiveness.

Critics of the H-1B program see it as a way for companies to keep IT wages low, to discriminate against experienced U.S. workers and to avoid labor law obligations.

In his examination of the presumed correlation between talent and salary, Matloff observes that Microsoft has been exaggerating how much it pays foreign workers. Citing past claims by the company that it pays foreign workers "$100,000 a year to start," Matloff says the data shows that only 18% of workers with software engineering titles sponsored for green cards by Microsoft between 2006 and 2011 had salaries at or above $100,000.

"By contrast, 34% of Microsoft's green card sponsorees with financial analyst titles made over $100,000, as did 71% of its lawyers in the PERM data," he said. "It would seem that, counter to its rhetoric, engineers are not top priority for Microsoft..."

Marnie Dunsmore, an integrated circuit engineer who has worked for companies such as Intel, said in an email that she believes the H-1B program has had the effect of making it easier to send jobs offshore and has discouraged U.S. students from seeking computer science education. And she disputed the notion that there's a shortage of U.S. IT talent.

Dunsmore recounted her experience with a recent job interview as a mixed-signal integrated circuit tester. The interviewer, she said, said was unwilling to conduct on-the-job training. "In other words, he was not willing to let me sit down with the manuals, pick up what someone else has done, and allow me to spend a couple of weeks figuring out what test code he needs to have tweaked," she explained. "Ten years ago, a test lab would have jumped at the chance to get an experienced circuit designer to do test design and coding. Now, they're so flooded with hiring options that they can turn their nose up at having to train, even for a few weeks, very experienced programmers and engineers."

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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