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Beryl Lieff Benderly

President Obama Encounters High-Tech Unemployment

Amazing things have been happening in recent days in the national discussion of the scientific and technical labor force. As Science Careers has reported, the National Institutes of Health issued a report stating that oversupply of scientists is a chief concern among those working in the biomedical job market, and even suggesting that supporting fewer students and postdocs could help alleviate the problem.  
Perhaps even more more significantly, President Obama, a staunch advocate of the view that America produces too few scientists and engineers, came face to face — apparently for the first time — with the reality of highly trained but out-of-work Americans.

At an online “town hall” coversation with ordinary citizens held January 30, Jennifer Weddell, the wife of a Texas engineer who has been out of work for 3 years, asked a question that’s on the minds of many similarly situated Americans: “Why does the government continue to extend the H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my husband with no job?”

Obama began to tell Mrs. Weddell that, although there is generally a great demand for engineers across the country, some specialties, such as civil engineering, are less in demand due to the depressed construction industry. When she told him that her unemployed husband is a specialist in semiconductors, the President appeared puzzled. “The word we’re getting is that somebody like this should be getting work right away,” he said.
The key to the condundrum, as Unversity of California-Davis computer professor Norman Matloff suggests, is that Mrs. Weddell’s husband is not one of the young, cheap, newly minted graduates who get the great bulk of the H-1B visas. Instead, he is a professional with 10 years of experience, and therefore an expectation of higher pay. Mr. Weddell (assuming he shares a surname with his wife) has probably reached the crucial mid-to-late 30s, when high-tech companies begin sloughing workers off.
Obama did not seem to get the big picture during his brief interchange with Mrs. Weddell, who showed real gumption in standing her ground when the President spoke of the purported technical skills shortage and the supposedly vigorous demand for technically trained personnel. Obama appeared to see the questioner’s husband as a special case and asked Ms. Weddell to send her husband’s resume so that White House staff could look into what was wrong.  
So here’s the really crucial question: Will they look beyond this single fruitless job search? Will they see only a lone individual whom they can help get hired through industry connections? Or will they begin to appreciate Mr. Weddell for what he really is, a victim of a serious national problem that Obama simply does not seem to understand?
“The word we’re getting” most likely comes from the employers who benefit from policies that glut the scientific and technical labor markets, and not from the many struggling scientific and technical workers like Mr. Weddell, or from scholars like Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who know the effects of these policies on many American workers. As Matloff observes, industry figures will probably race to find a good position for Mr. Weddell so that the White House need not probe deeper and discover what is really going on. The President’s staff needs to look not only at Mr. Weddell’s credentials, but at the voluminous literature on the disastrous state of the scientific and technical labor market.

So, hats off to the gutsy Mrs. Weddell, not only for what she did for her lucky husband but for what she tried to do for people like him across the country. Because of her, there’s at least a chance that the views of the scientists and engineers caught in the glut may get through to the White House. Here’s hoping that Obama gets the full picture, and not just the impression that the Weddells alone need special help. What he would learn will contradict many of his own statements on the dearth of scientific and technical expertise in this country. But the President is a highly intelligent man with an inquiring mind, and this really isn’t rocket science. On this issue, he and the nation need him to hear the whole truth.