Dr. Norman Matloff


Lawyer helps high-tech firms find, retain foreign workers


 I am of course used to dishonesty among lobbyists, but many of the statements made by the lobbyist in the Q&A enclosed below are especially outrageous.

Here is a particularly egregious one:
Q: Are the colleges starting to catch up with the demand for technology workers?

A: The universities are offering the courses. But what's interesting is that the enrollment is not necessarily increasing among U.S. students. You are seeing a lot of foreign students still flocking to U.S. universities. This has been a consistent pattern among the computer industry lobbyists: First they lie about something, then are caught in the lie, and then replace it with another lie.

As many of you will recall, when the industry started its PR campaign in 1997 (there were other campaigns in the past too, of course), they kept saying that young Americans just aren't studying computer science anymore, that they have neither the interest nor the background to do so. Please note, this was a lie, not a misstatement made out of ignorance; ITAA president Harris Miller was told in early 1997 that this was false, and yet he kept saying it to the press and Congress after that. (See my "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage" paper, Sec. 6.1, for the details.) 

After I pointed out to enough people the data showing that CS enrollment was skyrocketing, Harris had to back off (though he still continued to play games with verb tenses on this matter). Now Reiff is saying, yes, CS enrollment is increasing, but the increase is due to foreign students. This is demonstrably false. Only 6% of Bachelor's degrees in CS go to foreign students, and this figure has held steady over the years. The proportion of foreign students is of course higher at the graduate level, but the context, implicit in the question here and explicit in ITAA literature, is for Bachelor's degrees.

Similarly, the lobbyists used to cry, "We can't get any applicants for our jobs!" (See for example the testimony to Congress by Ecutel CEO John Harrison.) Then I pointed out that industry firms, large and small, across the nation, are actually INUNDATED with applicants. So now Reiff says, OK, yes, the firms do get a lot of applicants, but that shouldn't count, because the applicants already are working as programmers. (This is apparently a standard "talking point" now used by the lobbyists; the NRC committee said at the Santa Clara meeting that they had been told this.)

In addition to the fact that Reiff offers no data to support her claim, it is an obfuscation of the real issue, which is that the firms reject the vast majority of their applicants without an interview. Even Reiff guesses here that 50% are rejected without an interview, and in fact the rate is even higher than that, much higher. If you talk to HR people (recall the "experiment" I urged the NRC committee members to perform) they will freely admit that they reject the VAST MAJORITY of their applicants without an interview. No employer would even have time to interview 50% of their applicants. Recall the John Otroba quote in my "Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage" paper from the the Washington Post, in which he says he only calls 1 in 12 of his applicants, and fewer than those get in-person interviews.So Reiff is obfuscating the issue. The issue is that employers are EXTREMELY PICKY in their hiring---a clear refutation of their claim to be "desperate" to hire.

It is interesting that Reiff says there are a lot of "older" H-1Bs who have math and physics degrees. Probably this was just an offhand remark on her part, not something she intended to be a main point, but for the record, it is not correct. The vast majority of H-1Bs are young. See for example data in the IT Workforce Data Project report on this (though it is not perfect data for various reasons). Reiff is correct in saying that retention of workers is a major concern to employers. I wish to point out again that this is a major reason why H-1Bs are so attractive to employers, due to the "indentured servant" situation. (I also have pointed out that if the employers were to abandon their insane obsession with specific skills, e.g. Java, then they would have much less of a retention problem, since workers possessing rare skills could not shop around for the highest bidder who wants that skill.)

The article follows below.

The Washington Times Business Times

Published in Washington, D.C. 5am -- November 29, 1999

Lawyer helps high-tech firms find, retain foreign workers


By Timothy Burn



The search for new pools of workers gets more frantic as the nation's unemployment rate continues to tighten. When human resources professionals lament their difficulty with finding workers, the talk often shifts to immigration. At the center of the issue is Laura Foote Reiff, a lawyer with Greenberg Traurig, a major national law firm that recently opened swanky new offices in Tysons Corner to cater to local high-tech firms. Mrs. Reiff is a rising lieutenant in the army of Dulles corridor companies battling for changes in immigration law.

Congress and the White House last year agreed to temporarily raise the cap on the number of skilled foreign nationals entering the country to work on temporary (H-1B) visas. High-tech executives, who have looked to countries such as India for employees with needed skills, say the changes were not enough. 

Mrs. Reiff sits on just about every private-sector immigration committee between Reston and the House Rayburn Building. She says sparks will fly once again on business immigration when Congress returns from the holidays.

Question: What do you do for high-tech companies?
Answer: First is the legislative work to ensure that our clients get the people they need. We also help companies obtain non-immigrant visas and green cards. The third component is employment counseling. To hire anybody in the United States, you have to verify employment eligibility. If you hire people who are undocumented, you will be penalized.

Q: Do you help companies find workers as well, or just sort through the legal issues?
A: We don't necessarily find workers for them. We counsel them on what they can do with that pocket of workers in India. Are they incorporated? Is it an Indian entity that you would be interested inacquiring? That would alleviate the need for bringing them in on an H-1B because it would be an intra-company transfer. We help them strategize.

Q: Is there a certain profile of company that is interested in non-immigrant work visas?
A: They're your companies, your telecommunications companies, software consulting companies, computer consultants. Even mainline manufacturing companies are doing things that are high-tech. This just happens to be the "Silicon Valley" of the East, where companies are mostly Internet media based. It is estimated that there are 30,000 unfilled technology jobs in Northern Virginia alone.

Q: There has been some skepticism of industry estimates of the shortage.
A: The bottom line is that when you look at the number of job postings on the Internet, the volume of advertising is huge. We need to show the department of labor that there is a shortage. I don't know what the actual number is. As a board member of the Immigration Law Foundation, we're trying to put our finger on that number. Human resources people say it's their biggest problem. 

Q: Speaking of HR people, are their in-boxes empty of resumes, or just filled with the wrong ones?
A: They are getting a lot of resumes. Most are already employed and looking around for a better wage, or better job. It's a great market to bounce around, even if you're an H-1B. If you're in Iowa programming for a manufacturing company, you may want to come to Virginia.

Q: Aren't HR folks getting a lot of resumes that aren't any good?
A: Some of the resumes that come in are just junk. People are fishing, and some may not even be interested in the job they are applying for. Maybe 50 percent of resumes we see on labor certification cases, we don't even interview because they are not qualified.

Q: What kinds of skills are H-1B candidates bringing to the job?
A: A lot of the older individuals are coming out with math and physics degrees. The younger ones may have computer science, information systems, business information processing, electrical engineering. It runs the gamut. The schools are developing new and different courses.

Q: Are the colleges starting to catch up with the demand for technology workers?
A: The universities are offering the courses. But what's interesting is that the enrollment is not necessarily increasing among U.S. students. You are seeing a lot of foreign students still flocking to U.S. universities.

Q: As you know, Congress enacted changes in the H-1B visas program. How are those changes working out, and what happens next?
A: I do a lot on the Hill. We worked very hard with [the staff of Sen. Spencer Abraham, Michigan Republican] on getting that bill passed. I didn't particularly like the final version. But I was glad we increased the cap. We wanted an elimination of the 65,000 worker cap. It's a temporary work visa. But if U.S. businesses need them, why have a cap? In the last two years we have hit that cap consistently. Last year, they cut off visa processing in April. In you didn't have your application filed in April, you weren't going to have a visa. We have already started with fiscal year-2000 visa numbers and I estimate that by the end of January we are going to run out yet again. And we still don't have the new regulations implemented, which is beyond me.

Q: So is there a move for further changes?
A: There are so many different proposals now. [Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat], who is on the House immigration subcommittee, has proposed a new type of visa, a tech worker visa. The T-visa would be for people who are graduating from U.S. universities. It would free up some of the H-1B visas for graduates of U.S. universities. Also, [Sen. Charles S. Robb, Virginia Democrat,] about six weeks ago introduced a bill in the Senate that was supposed to be a countermeasure to the House bill. I think we'll see both of those bills moving through.

Q: The last H-1B bill was contentious but it managed to make it through Congress. Do you expect the same level of debate next year?
A: The Clinton administration has said they are going to veto any legislation that seeks to increase the H-1Bs. I don't know where they are going to come down on the T-visa. If it is the Robb version, maybe they won't be so quick to pull out the veto stamp.

Q: These H-1B visas are temporary, but high-tech hiring woes aren't going away anytime soon. So what happens when these visas end?
A: Employers don't want to let valuable workers go. If it is determined that someone here on an H-1B is a good long-term prospect, then they will push through and try to help that worker get a green card before the six years run out. It's not a sure thing because you have to test the U.S. labor market to make sure there is no U.S. worker willing or able to take the position.

Q: How often does that happen?
A: A lot of the foreign workers here are very savvy. You can get a lot of information off the Internet. They know there is low unemployment and they can shop themselves around. Many foreign candidates are demanding sponsorship as a condition for taking a job.

Q: Do high-tech companies benefit from the temporary nature of these foreign guest workers?
A: After recruitment, retention is the second greatest concern among employers. They want to know what they could do to keep these people. It's expensive to hire new people. Recruiters are making a killing in this market.

Q: What do you think will happen next year in Congress regarding immigration and workers shortages?
A: It's going to be crazy. Immigration legislation has typically passed during election years. I see a big change in business immigration as long the economy stays constant.

Copyright 1999 News World Communications, Inc.