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“An Internal Brain Drain”

The United States is suffering from a serious scientific and technological workforce problem that harms innovation, according to Norman Matloff of the University of California-Davis computer science department. But it is not the supposed shortage of American scientists and engineers widely bemoaned by politicians and industry representatives.

Rather, because of “an internal brain drain” of able Americans out of scientific and technical fields, “we are wasting our talent,” he told he told an audience of legal and immigration experts, IT workers, and scientists at a March 18 policy briefing held at the Georgetown University Law School. This loss of talent largely results from the nation’s policy of admitting large number of scientists, IT workers, and computer engineers, he said.
 Entitled “Are they they best and brightest?  Analysis of employer-sponsored tech immigrants,” the talk was arranged by the Institute for the Study of International Migration of Georgetown’s school of foreign service.  Matloff’s answer to that question is a resounding No. Despite widely publicized claims that foreign tech workers and scientists represent exceptional ability and are thus vital to American innovation, Matloff called that argument merely “a good sound byte for lobbyists” supporting industry proposals for higher visa caps. The data, on the other hand, indicate that those admitted are no more able, productive, or innovative than America’s homegrown talent, he said.
In fact, Matloff went on, the nation is “wasting the innovation” that Americans could create because they are being driven from technical and scientific fields by the influx of foreigners.  “There are a lot of good people who are displaced,” he said. In the tech field, this does not occur because of  talent, education, productivity or ability but with age, and ultimately with pay, he stated.  Employers prefer to bring in young foreign workers who are cheaper in preference to employing experienced Americans who are more expensive.  In a number of tech companies, a majority of workers are foreign-born while many Americans being displaced “are of good quality.”    Over 20 years ago, he noted, experts predicted that encouraging immigration would discourage citizens from entering these fields.  
“It’s an issue of money….It’s all due to an oversupply of people” created by immigration policies, he said. The issues applies to both the IT industry and scientific research, he added.  One result is that young American “would have to be crazy to go into lab science today,” he said.  “No study except for industry studies has ever shown a shortage” of scientific or technical workers, he said.  One indication of non-shortage is that “salaries are flat,” whereas in a shortage situation they should rise.

Proponents of more visas and green cards for foreign engineers and scientists, however, regularly cite the supposedly higher rates of entrepreneurship and patent applications by foreigners.  The data show that immigrants patent at rates similar to or lower than that of Americans.  Immigrants do, however, have more research publications and higher rates of entrepreneurship.
Further analysis reveals, however, that this does not necessarily indicate greater innovation.  “Many people in academe game the system and are very good at becoming machines to make many publications,” he said.  And “founding a company is not the same thing as innovation,” he continued, citing a study showing that a third of the tech companies founded by Chinese immigrants are simply wholesaling or assembling PCs.  Many Indian immigrant firms, meanwhile, are involved in outsourcing.
Matloff emphasizes that he does not oppose immigration.  He himself is the son of an immigrant and is married to a Chinese immigrant, he notes.  He is fluent in Chinese and travels to China, both on professional matters and to visit family members.  He has been instrumental in his department’s hiring immigrant faculty members, he adds.
What he opposes, he says, is permitting the labor market to be flooded with foreign workers, which he sees as contrary to the national interest.  Policies such as a blanket provision of a green card to all foreign science and tech graduates as “unwarranted.”  “There is no labor shortage in tech” and no “best & brightest” trend found among foreign students or workers here.    

14 comments on ““An Internal Brain Drain””

  1. anon

    Any time a CEO says he can’t find qualified employees and needs an H1-B visa holder, he should be asked two simple questions:
    1) is there a way for a job seeker to walk into your building with a resume, be screened in the lobby by HR, and be seen by the manager with the open position?
    2) or is it that all job seekers must send a resume into a centralized HR service, to be scanned, screened, filtered, qualified, keyworded, and then some days later emailed to the hiring manager?
    Any company that does not provide an easy way for walk-ins to seek jobs in the immediate facility should not be allowed to employ H1-B visa holders at that facility.

  2. Aaron Ortiz

    Xenophobic thoughts like this are the reason I decided not to stay in the US after I graduated. You may very well say “good riddance”, but I feel exactly the same way about not having to deal with those who fail to recognize that they are only two or three generations away from being immigrants themselves.
    Jobs are being lost in the US because of globalization and the law of supply and demand. Other nations have lower standards of living, and thus workers there are able to live happily with less money. So, it is cheaper for US corporations to hire them. It’s not mostly about talent, race, or nationality. It’s about supply and demand.
    Also, few intelligent college students want to slave away in difficult science careers when business careers are easier and pay more. Only “geeks” like myself who enjoy the challenge of math and science will go for that.
    But being a business-oriented nation is not a bad thing, it will tend to increase the US’s riches in the long term. The US will continue to prosper, and to attract science and math talent the world over, unless people like the author of this article drive them away.

  3. cj

    As a tech worker in the US, I have to disagree. I see far more problems with outsourcing the jobs overseas. My team of about 9 was reduced to 5 in the US, and 14 in India for the same amount of work.
    Between taxes, healthcare, and everything else corporations are required to pay on US workers, it’s cheaper to hire a number of outsourced employees, even if the quality of work isn’t as high (not that all outsourced employees are of less capability).

  4. Bob

    Ah, the old “let Americans be business people and everyone else the STEM workers” argument. That sounds good if you believe that we will NEVER, EVER have a major war with ANY trading partner. Let our STEM careers go in the trash for globalization if you believe in that. In the meantime I will be telling most of the students here that want to listen to forget being a STEM student as your career will be subject to the manic-depressive job market forces.

  5. EngiNERD

    Thanks for reporting on Prof. Matloff’s address.
    Just did a GOOGLE News search using “Matloff”. It only turned up this article!
    So much for the media, tech journals covering this side of the H-1B , brain drain issue.
    Why is the media ignoring the issue of American Job Destruction?
    suggested reading:
    Worse yet .. why aren’t our political leaders protecting American workers?

  6. dan

    CJ, how is that disagreeing? Can’t it be bad to send jobs overseas AND bad to import foreign workers for cheap labor? Both are bad.

  7. bt richards

    Aaron, there’s nothing “Xenophobic” about it, it’s fact. Then companies like HP fired 30,000 programmers earning an average of $70K each, sending those same jobs to India at $400/per month, that is just corporate greed – plain and simple – and is 100% accurate. Kids remember their parents treatment and refuse to be corporate fodder.
    However, another part of the equation is that America is currently swinging wildly religious. There is a large “ANISCIENCE” mentality in this country. Anyone wanting to study science risks being ridiculed.

  8. James Austin

    I’d just like to echo the sentiment that there’s nothing xenophobic about Matloff’s arguments (or Benderly’s echoing of them). I’m not even sure there’s any substantive disagreement playing out here. No one is saying that foreign scientists, engineers, or IT folks are less qualified or deserving. What we’re talking about here is basic economics. If you set as a policy objective the recruitment of your citizens into science careers — and our government has done that — you need to put into place policies that are likely to lead to that outcome. Foreign scientists in effectively endless supply (whether they come here or the jobs go there) put an upper limit on salaries that’s below the level where top home-grown students will be drawn to the profession.
    Consequently, for the best and brightest Americans, science is not a very attractive profession. Yes, the most passionate will join the field anyway, and that’s very important, but a lot of other talented local folks will choose professions where the payoff is more certain. Let’s say you’ve decided to go to Duke, and you can go to the graduate school, the law school, or the medical school. Which choice is the LEAST certain to lead to a high standard of living?
    The IT debate — which is where H-1Bs are most relevant — is quite different, but similar in one important respect. But to me it’s completely clear that corporate tech leaders lobbying for H-1B cap expansion are merely seeking to lower their labor costs. But isn’t this short-sighted? The future of their business — their whole industry — depends on attracting smart, creative people. And if you want to attract good people, you have to pay them.
    Jim Austin, Editor
    Science Careers

  9. Rik

    I suspect the same jobs will go to the same workers, regardless of whether or not they live in the US.
    The difference is, workers in the US will pay income taxes here and spend their money in the US. The choice for US politicians (and voters) is between trickle-down, having foreigners work and spend their money in the US, and outsourcing, where all of the money goes overseas.
    For anybody fixing cars, flipping burgers or providing any other service job in the US, the choice should be obvious: get as many highly paid workers in the US as possible, because those will be the best customers.

  10. Fred in IT

    How do you suppose having wealthier MBAs will entice others to design and build the toys that those MBAs will covet? That’s right, you don’t care about who does the design nor their living conditions. Just so that you get your toy.
    We have an entire country of sniveling whiners expecting everyone to either bail them out (most of the Unions and Democrats) or are trying to get as much as they can for a little effort as possible (business and Republicans)
    Very few people take pride in their work, their family, their community and definitely not their country. You sure don’t. You bailed.
    So, when you come back, live here and vote you get a voice in the matter. Good, bad or indifferent. Until then, you are just armchair quarterbacking which does no one any good.
    Annon – RE: Resume’s – I like your idea. You are right, technology should be to the point to make this happen.
    Fred in IT.

  11. S

    As a sum total of all IT workers in all companies in the US, what is the percentage of H1Bs? I thought that was far smaller than what is needed to affect wage levels vs other professional fields.
    Have you measured the number of wasted brains that have gone to wall street that created financial weapons of mass destruction while earning a large, yet undeserved pay relative to other engineering fields?? Could a business career with its promised riches the real reason for young americans to not opt for STEM rather than H1B?
    While the data analysis in the pdf appears to be be rigorous (not sure since I haven’t analyzed it), many of the conclusions seem to be random and without any rigor. For example, the statement “Currently have long waits for green cards in EB-3 category—the wrong group to offer a remedy, as it is exactly the one for the least talented workers.” has no basis.
    The category at which a visa was filed has nothing to do with the worker’s talent or education level, it has everything to do with a position’s requirement. Many of these individuals (some of them are my friends), are stuck in limbo for 10+ years leading to exploitation in some cases. If the US Immigration bureaucracy had actually denied greencards, it would’ve just led to most of these people moving back to their home countries and taking the job and tax revenue with them.
    Because of the sudden introduction of a large labor force of India and China into the global work force in the last 20-30 years which didn’t exist before (opening of a dam if you will), global wages are adjusting to a new equilibrium in all kinds of white collar jobs (e.g. legal work). H1B or not, wage depression of the overpaid american worker was inevitable while wages in what was once “poorer” nations go up. This is because businesses do everything to return value to their shareholders…

  12. C. Stephenson

    Underneath all this rhetoric is a patently false assumption. What we have here in the US is a failure to educate. While other nations are ensuring that their students are well prepared for high level computer science jobs (with national curricula that focus on computer science, math, and science), computer science is in danger of disappearing completely from our K-12 schools. Other nations teach their kids to be tool builders while we teach ours to how use a keyboard and powerpoint. And so we are becoming a nation that uses the tools that others build. If you look at the Taulbee report it is clear that we simply are not producing enough graduates in these fields to fill the jobs we have, let alone to keep up with the growth predicted by the bureau of labor statistics. Companies are not entirely blameless as they make little to no commitment to retraining existing workers when it is cheaper to hire new grads. But maybe it is time to stop blaming the bad foreigners who are trained to do these jobs and start ensuring that our kids have the skills they need to compete in a global marketplace.

  13. Matloff is right

    Matloff is right. This all originated out of the H1-B visa entry program. The H1-B program was supposed to let in only “genius” level scientists.
    What’s happened is that Microsoft and other companies have pushed for the H1-B program to be widened in terms of number of persons allowed because of the supposed lack of scientific/ mathematical education in America.
    And on the other hand, they have outsourced as much as possible to low-wage countries all technical jobs.
    Having outsourced two IT departments personally at WaMu before they went bankrupt, I know of what I speak.
    Any one that complains that our educational system is insufficent hasn’t answered the most basic question.
    “You claim that our education system is insufficient. Yet, you are pointing at basic educational stats as opposed to stats that look at college-level stats. Specifically, at the college-level, exactly how many American CS graduates are not able to handle the math/ science/ CS for the jobs that are currently available?”
    The first two commenters are shills for ITAA, or otherwise similarly compromised in terms of ideology.

  14. John

    There are lots of good STEM people here in the US, and many are losing their jobs when the jobs are send overseas. My company closed 2 entire offices of developers here in the US and hires 300 developers in China at $1,200 a month. The few of us left were no longer allowed to do software development but were instead supposed to spend all our time herding the 300 developers in Shanghai. Of All the folks who were layed off as part of this excercise, many have left the field or found other jobs at huge pay cuts.
    The corporation’s profits soared, but the US tax base has been shot in the head, and who in the world is going to encourage their kids to STEM careers in this instance? If I weren’t already mid career I don’t know that I could do it, and I love what I do and am extremely good at it. No matter how good I am, how can I compete with the 10 people that can be hired for the same price in Shanghai? Are they as good as I am? No. Will they be in about 15 years? Probably. But where will that ultimately leave the United States?
    I suspect in the end the corporations will relocate abroad and the US will become a the slum of the world. Yeah the “shareholders” made some short term money, but our country is about to become a wasteland due to corporate greed.

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