Theme: The High-Tech Manpower Shortage: Is it Real or Mythical?

February 24, 2010

by V Berba Velasco Jr PhD

A decade ago, most Americans would have agreed that the USA needed more engineers and programmers. The country needed high-tech workers in order to maintain its worldwide edge in technology, and common wisdom dictated that there jus weren’t enough of them to go around.

As the years went by though, the tide of sentiment started to shift.  This was especially true after the Y2K threat fizzled out, after the dot com bubble burst, and after the 9/11 tragedy forced many high-tech US companies into conducting massive layoffs.  Among engineers and programmers, unemployment started to rise, as did resentment toward foreigners who were alleged to have taken jobs away from hard-working Americans.  Whereas high-tech workers used to trumpet the need to recruit talented manpower from overseas, many of them started to proclaim that there were plenty of techies to go around, and that this manpower shortage was all a myth.

Predictably, many Americans heaped blame on foreign workers, particularly those who were employed on H-1B work visas. This visa program allows workers in specialized categories-typically, science, engineering, and computer technology-to work in the USA on a temporary basis.  Resentful techies protested that there was no manpower shortage, and that companies only wanted to hire foreigners because these people would be willing to work longer hours for less pay.

So what’s the real deal?  When Americans technical workers remain unemployed, does this mean that US companies are passing them up in favor of cheap labor? Are there more than enough American techies to go around?  Is the high-tech manpower shortage real, or is it all just hype?

I think that the answer lies somewhere in between. Admittedly, there are many programmers and engineers who have a hard time finding employment.  It is also true that there are companies that deliberately underpay foreign workers.  Does this mean that the manpower shortage is mere fiction, though – nothing but a ploy to justify the hiring of low-wage foreigners?  Not necessarily.  There may be unemployed techies out there – perhaps even an abundance of them — but this doesn’t mean that a company will have no problem finding the specific kind of person that they need.  (It’s also worth considering that the unemployment rate among engineers has dropped considerably since the immediate post-9/11 era – but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that unemployment is still a grave concern.)

Some people seem to think that a programmer is a programmer and that an engineer is an engineer. They see companies choosing foreign nationals over US citizens and they protest that these companies must surely be looking for cheap labor.  Mind you, I have no doubt that some companies do operate in this fashion; however, we should not conclude that this is indeed their motivation.  People are like snowflakes, after all; no two of them are alike. Engineers are not interchangable, and it would be foolish to conclude that one programmer can do the work of another, simply because they both know how to produce code.

I speak from personal experience.  During the post-9/11 employment bust, I was working for a robotics company in Silicon Valley, where I was involved in evaluating prospective job candidates.  Despite the large number of available programmers out there, we had an extremely difficult time finding anyone who had the right skills.  We weren’t looking for a perfect match, mind you; just somebody who was close enough.  The best candidates were usually foreign-born, and few if any of them were US citizens. Additionally, while the best candidates did have the right technical skills (or were close enough to what we needed), their resumes and interviews often revealed inadequacies in other areas-lackluster communication skills, for example.

Mind you, I’m not saying that American techies are lacking in skills or qualifications.  That would be an oversimplification as well.  Rather, my argument is that we should avoid painting with a broad brush. Different companies have different needs, and some of them will have a hard time finding just the right people.  This is especially true of companies that are pushing the envelope of high-tech development and who need to recruit the most qualified people possible.

I’ve heard other engineers make the same observation.  As one commentator said, “A good programmer requires a lot of different skills. These skills are developed in several ways:  (1) a good basic education, (2) experience, and (3) analytical thinking.  I haven’t met much people who combine these skills.”  When a company isn’t just looking for someone who can hammer out code – when they need someone with strong analytical and problem-solving skills, for example, or who can develop strong software architectures – then the pool of possible candidates can dwindle dramatically.

This problem is especially acute in strongly cross-disciplinary fields.  Suppose that you need someone who can do circuit design, but who also has some software development and mechanical design skills.  Such people are valuable in fields such as robotics, automation, and disk drive design, and they can be tough to find.  When an American engineer is passed up for jobs like these, it’s typically not because companies want cheap labor. Rather, it’s because people with the right combination of skills can be mighty difficult to find.  That’s why companies are willing to recruit foreign nationals for these jobs, despite all the legal expenses and headaches involved.

So in summary, is the manpower shortage real?  In my judgment, yes and no.  There are indeed times when foreigners are hired because they’re willing to work for less.  However, we should not be quick to conclude that companies that hire foreign nationals are simply doing so to save a buck.  I’ve seen too many situations where a company had a difficult time finding anybody who had the right skill set, even when there was no shortage of applicants.

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