Silicon Valley's H-1B immigration position has some holes

Businessman selecting a group of people.
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The tech worker 'shortage' that isn't

In November, President Obama outlined a sweeping executive order that would overhaul the immigration system with provisions that would provide work permits for up to five million undocumented workers and provide for more software engineers and entrepreneurs to work in the U.S. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has been pushing for immigration reform for many years, claiming a labor shortage at a crucial period of market growth.

And yet, the technology industry isn't happy with the President's plan, saying that it  wants more sweeping reforms to bring in even more workers from abroad. On paper, that sounds great. America is the land of opportunity, after all, and letting more skilled technology workers into the country during a tech labor shortage seems like a no-brainer.

The problem: There's a strong argument to be made that there's not really a talent shortage. In fact, there's a lot to support the notion that there are more Americans willing and ready to work than ever. So what's really going on? (If you had "greed" or "obliviousness" on your bingo card, collect your prize at the front.)

The key is the H-1B visa that lets foreign skilled workers stay in the U.S. for up to six years. The number of visas is limited to 65,000 per year (85,000 if you count the extra 20,000 set aside for advanced degree graduates of U.S. schools). Since there's a limit, hiring from outside the country is a zero-sum game, since every foreign worker hired for a startup is one fewer hired at another. Silicon Valley wants more of these foreign workers -- Facebook's even started a bipartisan lobbyist organization called FWD.us to push for a higher quota and a streamlined path to the treasured green card, which would free up more H-1Bs for more non-citizens. 

This is only an issue if you're not searching within America's borders for your next programming talent. A recent paper by the Economic Policy Institute concludes that only half of all American college graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) get hired into their fields every year, and when adjusted for inflation, the IT industry only pays about what it did in 1999. 

All of that implies that tech firms, in general, aren't offering enough money to attract Americans. (For all the talk of overpaid Google interns, you have to consider the average outside of the San Francisco Bay Area.) Rather than raise wages, they're trying to get foreign skilled workers instead. And don't forget that for an H-1B holder loss of work means loss of visa . While President Obama is promising reforms that would let these workers at least change employers, being out of a job even temporarily means running the risk of losing legal status. The result is that Silicon Valley essentially locks its foreign workforce into tightly-controlled ecosystem of indentured servitude.

"We don’t dispute the fact at all that Facebook and Microsoft would like to have more, cheaper workers. But that doesn’t constitute a shortage,” the paper's co-author Daniel Kuehn told Businessweek

Of course, that's just one study, which isn't enough make this a "trend" by any means. But it's also more evidence than has been presented for the idea of an actual tech worker shortage, outside of the observable but non-scientific mad scramble for talent exhibited in San Francisco and its environs.

It's telling that Facebook's one-sentence response to that study doesn't address the question of a tech worker shortage at all: "We look forward to hearing more specifics about the President’s plan and how it will impact the skills gap that threatens the competitiveness of the tech sector.”

Silicon Valley is always recruiting: One startup made headlines when it offered poached egg sandwiches (get it?) to Googlers waiting for a bus to the Googleplex in a blatant attempt to get some top-tier talent. Google itself offers generous commissions for the referral of anybody who can make it through its legendarily difficult interview process and actually get hired. Talking to any startup founder in any bar in San Francisco inevitably ends with a sly "if you happen to know anybody...." And yet half of  STEM college graduates in the U.S. are out of work.

So where does this "talent shortage" actually come from? Confirmation bias, for one thing. Silicon Valley prides itself on its "meritocracy," where competency and vision as a programmer, a software engineer, a designer, a systems architect, or whatever else, is more important than how you dress, where you came from, or what you look like. And in this world, anybody can rise to the top if they work hard and contribute good ideas.

Yet Apple, Twitter, Facebook, and other heavyweights have released diversity reports indicating that in their product divisions, they're mostly white and mostly male. Kind of a weird coincidence that all of the most competent people all happen to look the same and come from similar backgrounds, right?

So maybe the issue isn't so much that there aren't enough workers. Maybe it's that there are so many who don't live in the Silicon Valley bubble, or fit the Silicon Valley mode, and so get passed over entirely as non-candidates. 

"An organization need not look very far for new workers that can take on technical roles. Many women and people of color are nudged into positions in customer support, quality assurance, and technical writing with promises, implied or explicit, of support to transition into a software development role," writes Model View Culture's Dimas Guardado in "Manufacturing the Talent Shortage." 

There's a lot of good work being done in addressing that gap: A very popular article called "Refactoring the Mirrortocracy" by Carlos Bueno gave the phenomenon a name and some practical advice on how to address it by integrating feedback loops and simply practicing. 

"More generally, confirmation bias and stereotype threat are real. If you expect women to be less technical or intelligent, that's what you'll see," writes Bueno.

Nobody's arguing that immigration doesn't need reform -- the process for workers entering the United States is byzantine and at times asinine. As the New York Times reports, Zenefits co-founder Laks Srini had to be officially hired by his co-founder Parker Conrad as a database administrator just to get a work permit transferred from a former employer. That same report has numerous tales about immigrants who would and wouldn't affected by Obama's proposed reforms. Anecdotally, everybody in tech seems to have an immigration horror story about themselves or coworkers. 

But it would certainly be nice for Facebook, Microsoft, FWD.us, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and anybody else looking for cheap skilled labor to at least attempt to remedy their own inequalities with the qualified people willing and ready to work in the U.S. before they try to get a bigger slice of H-1Bs from a bigger pie. That kind of change, by the way, would also free up more of the visas now available.

If they can't do that, maybe Silicon Valley should face the fact that it just wants cheap labor, rather than pretend like nobody here is worth hiring. 

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