As millions of students prepare this summer to begin their university studies, they’re being pressed to choose STEM fields, if only to keep America in the lead among its global rivals. “In the race for the future, America is in danger of falling behind,” President Obama stated in 2010. He labeled the crisis “our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
The high-tech industry contends that U.S. universities simply aren’t producing enough graduates to meet demand, leading to a “skills gap” that must be filled from overseas if the U.S. is to maintain its global dominance. Low unemployment rates among computer workers imply that “demand has outpaced supply,”Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution told me by email. “Companies struggle to fill job vacancies for skilled programmers and other STEM fields.”
A recent report called “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing 2015 and Beyond” projects that, “Over the next decade, nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled, and the skills gap is expected to result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled.
“If you can make the case that our security and prosperity is under threat, it’s an easy sell in Congress and the media,” says Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer at Harvard Law School and author of the 2014 book “Falling Behind? Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent,” which challenges claims of a STEM shortage in the U.S.
The industry’s push for more visas glosses over other issues. As we’ve reported, the majority of H-1B visas go not to marquee high-tech companies such as Google and Microsoft, but to outsourcing firms including the India-based giants Infosys and Tata. They’re not recruiting elite STEM graduates with unique skills, but contract workers to replace American technical employees — who often are required to train their foreign-born replacement as a condition of receiving their severance.
For such companies, raising the visa limit is about exploiting a loophole in immigration law to save money — workers on these temporary visas are typically paid less than U.S. employees doing the same work, and more complaisant with American bosses because they’ll be deported if they lose their jobs. Companies such as Google and Qualcomm do benefit from H-1B visas, but on a lower scale than the outsourcing firms. In 2013, Qualcomm secured visa approvals for 909 new workers, according to government figures compiled by Computerworld. Infosys got 6,300.
It’s unlikely that such hard numbers will silence the drumbeat for more high-tech immigration, as long as big tech companies have Congress’ attention. There’s no interest group that’s as well organized and financed to say that this is an emperor with no clothes on.”