Dr. Norman Matloff

Training Budgets and the Job Skills Issue


As you know, the central issue in the H-1B/claimed labor "shortage" controversy is specific software skills. Insincere employers use the skills issue as a pretext for seeking cheap labor, in the forms of younger U.S. workers and (also younger) foreign workers. Sincere employers have genuinely, though misguidedly, bought into the notion that one "must" hire someone with Java work experience if one has a Java project.

The employers do not deny that they reject the vast majority of their applicants without an interview. As I keep saying, anyone can call them and they will admit it. When asked why, they will say it is because most applicants don't have specific skills.

Again, I say they should hire experience programmers on the basis of talent, not skills. That is best for the companies' profitability. And yes, I *am* including the case in which an employer is worried about meeting a short deadline. The best way to meet that deadline is to hire smart people, not Java people. (The claim that they hire H-1Bs to meet short deadlines is baloney anyway. The industry's own figures show that on average jobs are kept open for several months.)

At any rate, my main point here is that though the industry claims that there is a general shortage of programmers---due to a claimed failure of the U.S. educational system---when pressed the industry admits that what they really mean is that there is a shortage of programmers WHO POSSESS SPECIFIC SOFTWARE SKILLS.

So, industry lobbyists are asked why they don't train people in those skills. A couple of the articles I've posted lately have quoted industry lobbyists responding by saying that the industry spends millions and millions on education and training. Journalists are often bowled over by the huge dollar figures the industry claims to spend.

But like almost anything else which comes out of those lobbyists' mouths, the claims about retraining are misleading examples of "creative accounting." The money they are citing has nothing to do with retraining older programmers and engineers.

For example, Microsoft makes huge donations of software and PCs to many universities. If I remember correctly, Microsoft recently donated $750,000 to UC Irvine's computer science department. Why? Was it because UCI had set up some program to retrain older programmers (which, recall, I say would be neither necessary nor useful anyway)? No, of course not. The reason Microsoft did this was that UCI, like most PhD-granting universities, uses Unix, and Microsoft wanted to get them to use Windows NT, and produce Windows-loving graduates. 

Days after a lobbyist for a major Silicon Valley electronics firm had told national media about the large sums of money the firm spends annually on training, I discussed this with a high-level official in the company. Speaking to me on background, he at first repeated the large figures his firm spends on training. Yet, when pressed he conceded that the company mainly provides training for its technicians, not its engineers or programmers.

So all those figures bandied about have nothing to do with the situation of older programmers and engineers. The bottom line is that by their own admission the employers do automatically reject, without an interview, anyone lacking a specified skill, instead of retraining them. No Java, no interview.

Norman Matloff