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Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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IT Talent Shortage Or Purple Squirrel Hunt?

Employers press for H-1B increases, while job hunters say searches seem designed to rule out U.S. workers. Is there really an IT talent shortage??

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There either is or isn't a technical talent shortage in the U.S. To hear corporate leaders tell it, America's woeful inability to educate enough students in science, technology, engineering and math has left U.S. companies with a dangerously shallow talent pool.

Arguably, this shortage is at least partially the result of past outsourcing, which has been discouraging U.S. students from pursuing IT careers.

Among the solutions advocated by the management class is expansion of the H-1B visa program, which aims "to help employers who cannot otherwise obtain needed business skills and abilities from the U.S. workforce by authorizing the temporary employment of qualified individuals who are not otherwise authorized to work in the United States," as the U.S. Department of Labor puts it.

[ Can the two sides ever agree on this issue? Read Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground. ]

Tech companies insist they cannot hire the talent they need. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said as much last week in a statement on And Laszlo Bock, SVP of people operations at Google, said this in a statement in January: "[A]t a time when the U.S. economy needs it most, our immigration policies are stifling innovation. The 2013 cap for the H-1B visas that allow foreign high skilled talent to work temporarily in the U.S. was exhausted by June 2012, preventing tech companies from recruiting some of the world's brightest minds."

The recently introduced Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 intends to raise the H-1B visa cap, among other immigration law changes.

But a talent shortage might just be another way of describing an unwillingness to pay market rates for talent. As Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School, put it in The Wall Street Journal back in October, 2011, "Some of the complaints about skill shortages boil down to the fact that employers can't get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered. That's an affordability problem, not a skill shortage."

Although the record high set this week by the Dow Jones Industrial Average suggests a return of economic optimism, the U.S. unemployment rate is still not low enough to prevent jobs seekers in the U.S. -- particularly those trained in technical skills -- from resenting the fact that employers are looking to hire people from outside the country.

Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California in Davis, contends that foreign IT workers are popular with companies because they are de facto indentured servants. Foreign workers do not have the same rights as U.S. workers: For example, if they're being sponsored for a green card, they cannot quit and seek work at another company without resetting the green card process.

Foreign workers brought to the U.S. under these restrictions are participating in a form of human trafficking. Instead of sexual bondage, it's intellectual restraint.

Keeping workers from accepting better offers elsewhere is hugely important to technology companies, because the departure of key personnel from a project can set the project back months or more.

"If you have this urgent project going on in your company, you don't want an engineer to leave you in the lurch by going to another company," said Matloff in a phone interview. "With an American employee, there's no way to stop that. With a foreign employee, if he or she is sponsored for a green card, he or she is basically stuck."

Shackling technical talent is so important that Adobe Systems, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit and Pixar had agreements for several years not to hire employees away from one another, until the U.S. Department of Justice forced the companies to stop with the threat of an antitrust lawsuit. The department didn't manage, however, to get any of those companies to admit to wrongdoing.

Testifying earlier this week on behalf of IEEE-USA, a group representing more than 200,000 technical professionals and students, Bruce Morrison told a Congressional immigration policy subcommittee that the talent needs of U.S. companies would be better served by deregulating the process by which employers sponsor new hires for permanent residency. This would allow foreign workers to participate in the talent market on a more equitable basis.

"If an employer is willing to pay a substantial fee to sponsor a skilled foreign worker for a green card -- which means he or she can quit if they are underpaid -- that is solid evidence the employer actually needs the worker's skills," he said in prepared remarks. "But if an employer is only willing to pay a fee for a worker who cannot quit without going back to the beginning of the green card process, that indicates the employer is more interested in the indentured character of the visa, than in the worker's skills."

Beyond the objection to treating foreign workers as indentured servants, critics of the H-1B program see it as an enabler of age discrimination.

This is not a simple issue, because age should not guarantee employment for the shiftless. As contributing editor Jonathan Feldman pointed out recently, "[T]here's a big difference between getting rid of people because they're old and shedding people who aren't cutting it. To put a finer point on the matter: Thoughtful cost control doesn't equate to age discrimination."

However, as Feldman also observes, it's difficult to prove age discrimination.

It's difficult to prove because companies are not transparent in the way they hire or fire. They need to become more so.

Companies demand transparency from prospective employees, who must reveal all sorts of information. But they are not forthcoming themselves about hiring requirements or decisions. How do outsiders know if a company exhausted its options before turning to a foreign hire? They don't.

One of the effects of this lack of transparency is that employees have no way to gauge whether a job posting represents a legitimate need or is a sham with "purple squirrel" requirements. A purple squirrel is something not found in nature, so job postings seeking purple squirrels are preordained to go unfilled.

A source I spoke with, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions, recounted being invited to a major technology company to interview for a program management job. The person accepted the interview reluctantly, because the job wasn't a great fit. But the company seemed even less interested. It didn't provide the interviewee with any information about preparing for the interview or about who would be attending. The interviewer showed up 20 minutes late and no one had the interviewee's resume. My source said it was clear the company wasn't serious about the interview.

Such positions, the source suggested, often list purple squirrel requirements -- such as five years of experience with a three-year-old technology -- as a reflection of the fact that the job posting is there to satisfy the statutory requirement in the green card process to consider U.S. workers before hiring a cheaper foreign worker.

Matloff noted this practice is common, but stressed that it's a misperception that the H-1B program includes a requirement to consider Americans before hiring someone from abroad. "If there's a green card process going on, which does require looking for an American first, then purple squirrel requirements are common," he said.

Matloff said that not all purple squirrel requirements are intended to provide legal cover. Some of them, he said, are simply a reflection of the fact that human resources departments need some way of filtering the deluge of resumes they receive. However, he added, in some instances, excessively specific requirements reflect the actual skills of foreign employees who have already been hired.

"Immigration lawyers as a group, they have explicitly admitted all this," Matloff said. "They say the employer has already found the foreign national they want to hire, so it's ridiculous to go through this charade to find an American."

Subtleties aside, companies engaging in such practices are violating the spirit if not the letter of the law. And they're doing so as a result of the very thing they chastise in workers: laziness. Many employers in the U.S. appear to have become disinclined to train workers, due to the ease of dipping into the foreign talent pool. Finding good people and training them takes work and costs money.

If businesses want their claims about talent shortages to be considered seriously, they need to support their claims with a more transparent hiring process. Matloff believes this is unworkable, because the suitability of an employee will always remain in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps so, but there could be more eyes trained on the hiring process, without turning this into another regulatory burden. If hiring decisions faced a company-wide vote, for example, merit or lack of merit would be more obvious. And among technical job seekers, contests can provide a way to evaluate potential employees in a context divorced from willingness to accept a below-market salary.

Matloff has made the case that H-1B workers are no better or brighter than U.S. workers. Let corporate America prove that supposedly essential foreign workers really have no peer here.

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