Older IT pros pushed aside by younger H-1B workers

H-1B visas go primarily to people who are under 35, suggesting that the threat of age discrimination may be central to much of the hostility surrounding the controversial program.

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The H-1B visa program sparks debate on many fronts, but age may be at the heart of the discord: The foreign workers who use the visa to come to the U.S. are overwhelmingly young.

Of all the H-1B applications approved by the U.S. last year, nearly 75% were for people who were 34 years old or younger. Of that group, 38% were 29 years old or younger, according to government data.

Does H-1B use affect the composition of workforces? It's hard to say. In recent years, many major technology companies -- including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and Facebook -- have been reporting the demographics of their personnel because they're aware of the importance of diversity, but they haven't included data about the age range of their employees.

But when tech industry leaders argue that employers need more H-1B workers, they are also -- by extension -- calling for younger IT professionals. Age and the H-1B can't be separated. What impact is this having on older tech workers?

Much of the discussion of the H-1B visa focuses on cases of displacement, such as the situations at Disney and Southern California Edison (SCE), where offshore providers of IT services brought in H-1B workers who were then trained by soon-to-be replaced U.S. workers.

But these headline-grabbing incidents may be deflecting attention from what some see as the core issue of the H-1B debate: age discrimination. Many of those displaced at Disney and SCE were older, certainly above 35, say affected employees.

Many technology companies, unlike offshore outsourcers, aren't hiring H-1B workers to replace their U.S. workers. But the visa-holders are certainly crowding out other workers, according to a study that compared workforce composition at companies that won the H-1B visa lottery with employee demographics at those that lost. The paper (PDF) -- by researchers at the University of California, the University of Notre Dame and the U.S. Department of the Treasury -- suggests that H-1B workers are paid less.

'Not a Good Fit'

"Employers are hiring younger H-1Bs instead of older U.S. citizens and permanent residents," said Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at UC Davis, and a longtime researcher and critic of the H-1B program.

If there's a single underlying issue related to H-1B use, it is the age issue, says Matloff.

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"I see it happen all the time, where young foreign students of mine apply for the same jobs as older Americans who I know are much better qualified," said Matloff. "The foreign students wind up getting hired, with the Americans rejected under the catch-all excuse, 'Not a good fit.'"

When U.S. workers are forced to train replacements who hold H-1Bs, there's a clear connection between government visa policy and job loss. Age discrimination may not be as obvious.

An age discrimination lawsuit was filed against Google this year by two older workers, who had sought jobs at the company and weren't hired. One woman was recruited by Google four times, did well on the initial phone interviews and was invited to in-person interviews. Each time she was rejected.

The lawsuit claims that the median age at Google is 29. It is based on data from PayScale, a benefits and compensation research company. That data -- culled from 840 profiles of full-time employees -- also shows that the median age at Facebook is 28. Employers with older workers, such as they are, include IBM Global Services, where the median was 38, and Hewlett-Packard, with a median age of 41 -- the closest to the median age of the U.S. workforce as a whole, which is 42.3.

The apparent bias in favor of younger people may have nothing to do with expertise. "When one looks at the actual skills needed in the large majority of jobs in this industry, it is not for the newest, cutting-edge programming languages or apps," said Hal Salzman, professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University. "Rather, it's for the more workaday programming skills and languages needed for large systems and PCs."

Certainly some H-1B holders are highly talented, but that's not true for most of them, said Salzman. "To argue that this population in particular is -- on average, or for the large majority -- more skilled is so far unproven," he said.

It's not just the H-1B visa that is getting attention. In 2008, the U.S. extended the 12-month Optional Practical Training (OPT) program to 29 months for students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subject matter. This program allows people from other countries to work in the U.S. on student visas, without the benefits of an H-1B visa, such as a guarantee that they'll be paid the prevailing wage.

"The industry likes young, controllable workers," said John Miano, the founder of the Programmers Guild, who is now an attorney. He has been representing the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers in a lawsuit challenging the OPT extension. "OPT and H-1B are both mechanisms industry uses to get that kind of labor. OPT creates an unlimited supply of young workers into the job market."


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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