Dr. Norman Matloff


The "Training Issue"


Enclosed is a very nice column by Stephanie Neil. I have a few comments:

1. The Gramm proposal, as I understand it, would not only raise the cap to 200,000, but would also allow an UNLIMITED number of H-1Bs who have graduate degrees. Most people I know who are active in opposing an H-1B quota increase are paying insufficient attention to this, because it is a Trojan horse.

If such a provision were enacted, you might as well consider it to be an unlimited number of people, since many would-be H-1Bs would then pick up a quick MS degree. 

As I have said before, there is no need for this; someone with an MS degree is NOT likely to be a better programmer than one lacking the degree.

2. I won't belabor this as I have brought it up many times before, but just quickly: The "training" issue is red herring cooked up by the industry lobbyists to make their demand for a higher H-1B quota look good. Recall that back in 1995 they were saying that H-1Bs were needed just temporarily, while we train all the laid-off defense workers. It never happened; on the contrary, these programs took programmers and engineers as inputs and then outputted technicians. 

3. Ms. Neil feels duped by the industry, but she should take consolation in the fact that journalists throughout the country were duped too, including the New York Times. Here is a tip for the future, though: Beware of any government proposal which is billed as "temporary," such as the increase in H-1Bs enacted last year, We in the SF Bay Area are still paying bridge tolls which were billed as "temporary" when the bridges were constructed 60 years ago. :-) 

4. Concerning "the right fit for the right job": Once again we are back to the issue of specific software skills. It would be interesting to know just what it was which made the PC Week Corporate Partner so interested in that particular H-1B; it almost certainly was some specific software skill, in which case the hire is not justified. (If the hire was based on this person being an outstanding talent, then it WOULD be justified, in my view.) 

Again, the industry execs are really adept at making these things sound good. Recall Bill Halchin's case. Sun Microsystems was saying it "must" hire H-1Bs, because it couldn't find anyone who could work on operating system kernels. At first glance, a charitable interpretation would be, "Well, OK, this is really hard stuff, so one needs a specialist." But then Bill, who had 17 years of experience writing OS kernels, applied to Sun and did not even get an interview.

Once when I mentioned on a radio talk show that some employers are sincere and genuinely---though mistakenly---buy into this notion that one needs to hire people with specific skills, an angry listener called in and said, "What do you mean, `sincere' employers? They're all insincere!" At the time I chided him for being too extreme, but the more I watch the industry, the more I wonder if maybe the guy was right.

5. Ms. Neil is absolutely right when she says that she could become an IT person. Anyone with the interest in computers can do it. But to me, that misses the point: We don't need to take nontechnical people and make them technical; we have plenty of technical people already, and all we have to do is USE them.

It is crucial to keep in mind that we will ALWAYS have a claimed labor "shortage" in the future. The technology will continue to change rapidly, and since employers are not willing to hire a programmer who has merely taken a class in a new technology (unless they take it in India!), there always will be a "shortage" of people with the newest skills. 

6. The problem is NOT just in the body shops. Remember, even though Tata and Mastech are at the top of the list of H-1B users, they still comprise only a small fraction of all H-1Bs.

7. One must be very, very brave to file a complaint with DOL, and according to the one person I know who did so, one must be very, very foolish too.


"Commentary" "PCWeek Online" Off the Cuff

H-1B redux
By Stephanie Neil
July 30, 1999 4:18 PM ET

Earlier this week, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, proposed the "New Workers for Economic Growth Act," which would increase the number of IT workers allowed into the United States on a temporary basis. Participants in this immigration program obtain an H-1B visa, and they must be sponsored by a company before they're allowed in.

Currently, the H-1B cap is 115,000 visas for fiscal 1999 and 2000. The cap is supposed to decrease to 107,500 in 2001 and then drop back to the original 65,000 quota in 2002. Senator Gramm's proposal would increase the H-1B visa cap to 200,000 through 2002. 

I guess we all saw this coming when the 1999 cap was reached in June. But when I reported a story back in April, in which officials from the Department of Commerce and the Information Technology Association of America pledged their devotion to the U.S.-based IT worker through training and other corporate or industry programs, I really thought progress was being made in the right direction.

And when I asked whether there was likely to be more lobbying to raise the cap in the future, their answer was "probably not." I guess I had my rose-colored glasses on that day, because I was duped. It's three months later and the push is already on to get more people into this country to fill all the open IT jobs.

These are people, not numbers

Now, I know someone who has been called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Aug. 5 against any increase in the H-1B cap. His argument will likely cover economic matters. But I'm more concerned about the people issues.

What bothers me about H-1B is the total disregard for individuals, who are only being represented by a number. See, we keep referring to "the H-1Bs" and "the 200,000 allowed in." These are people with families, aspirations and talents. Similarly, what about people in the United States who are in the same situation--families to support, dreams to fulfill, skills to put to work? 

With that in mind, here's why increasing the H-1B cap won't solve anything: First, companies don't want bodies, they want real people -- someone they can trust, someone they know has the talent to do the job. Sure, that someone could be a person with an H-1B visa. One of PC Week's Corporate Partners said he was wining and dining a job candidate because he was the right fit for the job. The candidate happened to be an H-1B visa holder. But the recruitment efforts were based on a genuine need to get the right person for the right job.

Second, there are plenty of competent people in the United States today. I'm not sure I buy this whole IT labor shortage argument. It's has more to do with investing in the people in your company than with finding the person with exactly the right skill set. Look at it this way: I'm not a technical person, I'm a journalist. But with the right motivation and enough drive on my part, I could easily be trained and turned into a database manager. Invest in the company's future--not a temporary worker.

Third, at some point the body shops that are recruiting foreign IT professionals in unethical and, sometimes, illegal ways will be put under the microscope. These outfits are taking up all the H-1B visas available to gain the upper hand in filling the jobs that are out there. There is obvious corruption, and as soon as the Department of Labor gets enough complaints, they'll be forced to take action (I hope). The point is, upping the H-1B cap does nothing to help the United States solve its IT skill-set deficit. What we really need to raise in this country is the respect shown our fellow men and women. 

Are you for or against raising the H-1B cap? Write me at Off the Cuff, an online exclusive column, appears

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