A reader sent along this link to an article at the New York Review of Books on the relentless emphasis on STEM jobs. The viewpoint of its author, Andrew Hacker, was preordained: he’s a political scientist who started a controversy about ten years ago with an editorial wondering if mathematical education (we’re talking up to the level of algebra) is even necessary or desirable. So he’s not going to be a big booster of any push into science or engineering.
But keeping those biases in mind, he does take a useful tour through what I see as the error at the other end of the spectrum. I’m not ready to say (along with Hacker) that gosh, hardly anyone needs algebra, let alone anything more advanced. But I’m also not ready to say that we’ve got a terrible shortage of anyone who does know such things. That link quotes Michael Teitelbaum, and the NYRB article is partly a review of his Falling Behind, which is a book-length attempt to demolish the whole “STEM shortage” idea. He also notes another book:
James Bach and Robert Werner’s How to Secure Your H-1B Visa is written for both employers and the workers they hire. They are told that firms must “promise to pay any H-1B employee a competitive salary,” which in theory means what’s being offered “to others with similar experience and qualifications.” At least, this is what the law says. But then there are figures compiled by Zoe Lofgren, who represents much of Silicon Valley in Congress, showing that H-1B workers average 57 percent of the salaries paid to Americans with comparable credentials.
Norman Matloff, a computer scientist at the University of California’s Davis campus, provides some answers. The foreigners granted visas, he found, are typically single or unattached men, usually in their late twenties, who contract for six-year stints, knowing they will work long hours and live in cramped spaces. Being tied to their sponsoring firm, Matloff adds, they “dare not switch to another employer” and are thus “essentially immobile.” For their part, Bach and Warner warn, “it may be risky for you to give notice to your current employer.” Indeed, the perils include deportation if you can’t quickly find another guarantor.
Here’s Matloff’s page on the subject, and his conclusions seem (to me) to ring unfortunately true. I can’t come up with any other way to square the statements and actions of (to pick one example) John Lechleiter, CEO of Eli Lilly. So I’m in an uncomfortable position on this issue: I am pro free-trade, and philosophically I’m pro-immigration (especially the immigration of the sorts of talented, hard-working people that all these US companies want to bring in). That philosophical leaning of mine, though, is predicated on these people being able to pitch in to a growing economy, but not if they’re just being used as a means to dump existing workers in favor of cheaper (and more disposable) replacements. And I hate sounding like a nativist anti-immigration yahoo, and I similarly hate sounding (at another end of the political spectrum) like some kind of black-bandanna-wearing anti-corporate agitator. (As mentioned above, I’m also not happy about finding myself in some agreement with some guy whose other positions include the idea that algebra should be dumped from schools as a useless burden). I look around, and wonder how I ended up here. Strange times.