TechHui

Hawaiʻi's Technology and New Media Community

I recently blogged on Tech Hui on the prospects for High Tech Visa reform in the coming 2013 congressional session.  In the context of technology workforce development there is an obvious conflict between the need to educate our own domestic workforce in the STEM disciplines and providing easier access to the technology labor market to foreign workers.  After all, if we let foreign tech workers in, don’t we damage the prospects for our own aspiring engineers, coders and developers?

Actually no, the issue is more complex than that.  We need to do both, work on domestic STEM education and reform the existing visa regime to allow freer access to international high-skilled talent. An excellent example of how these seemingly contradictory efforts are reconciled is in the work of California Representative Mike Honda, D-CA, whose district incorporates Silicon Valley, and who was recently profiled on Politico.com.  His business constituents, such as Yahoo, Cisco, Oracle and eBay, are demanding more STEM visas to fill their talent gaps.  Honda, a former science teacher, supports their position, but has also emerged as a leader in supporting STEM education domestically.

Three sound reasons support this dual approach. First, STEM education is a long-term solution, and does not fill immediate talent shortfalls, impacting growth in the tech sector now. Assuming we are able to bolster the numbers of American youth choosing STEM careers, the pipeline is still problematic in the near to medium term.  Second, a growing body of evidence indicates that international tech workers start new enterprises at a high enough rate that their overall impact on the tech sector is job creation positive, not negative. In other words, they generate more jobs than they occupy.  Third, if our tech sector is going to be competitive in the globalized real world economy, we need to integrate international perspectives throughout our workforce, not enforce isolation.

Mixed messages are always more difficult to communicate than binary choices.  But if we are trying to educate our congressional delegation about how to grow our tech sector and help develop our local workforce, it would not hurt to point out the example of California’s Mike Honda.

Tags: H-1B, IT, STEM, Tech, graduate, international, technology, visa

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Replies to This Discussion

Increasing STEM education by increasing STEM visas sounds like the same kind of reasoning as reducing the deficit by lowering taxes.  Corporations want more skills at lower wages.  This article suggests that if they offered jobs with higher pay and more security, then more domestic workers would get a STEM education.  But, those corporations can make higher profits in the short term by paying foreign workers less.

You are quite right that more STEM visas will not have any direct positive effect on STEM education, and also right that corporations, like consumers, will take more stuff at a lower price if offered.  I also agree that better wages and security help young people choose career paths, up to a point (aptitude and opportunity each have a role, too). 

However, the goal is to build the technology workforce now and for the future, and we will need to use both international talent and homegrown talent to do that.  I'm suggesting a both/and option rather than an either/or option.

Thanks for you thoughts, I appreciate your joining in the discussion. I'm going to take a look at that article.

J. David Beutel said:

Increasing STEM education by increasing STEM visas sounds like the same kind of reasoning as reducing the deficit by lowering taxes.  Corporations want more skills at lower wages.  This article suggests that if they offered jobs with higher pay and more security, then more domestic workers would get a STEM education.  But, those corporations can make higher profits in the short term by paying foreign workers less.

I agree that both are needed. We need to invest heavily in strong STEM education, especially K-12 where we are severely deficient, but we also need to take a more enlightened view of merit based immigration. As my favorite rag The Economist frequently argues, there is little debate among those who study the subject that allowing educated* and motivated people to immigrate contributes to economic health. US and Japanese politicians would do well to take note.

* Often just the motivated part is enough, but that is another debate for another website.

I am in favor of more public investment in STEM education, of course, and I cannot object very much to STEM visas after going to Japan on a work visa myself.  I too want a vibrant tech sector in the US, especially Hawaii.  But, when I hear corporations complain that they cannot find the workers they need, there is one factor that they often fail to mention.  These champions of the free market must realize that if they offered better jobs, they could find more workers.  It is not just a matter of compensation, but stability and training.

Workforce development sounds like a resource from the perspective of the corporation.  But, these workers have to be intelligent, so we need to consider this from their perspective too.  Outsourcing and treating workers as fungible commodities, to be employed on demand as a best fit of esoteric skills or requirements, may be good for the corporation, but it is bad for the workers.  A couple of my coworkers have quit our industry because of this very situation, going back to school and getting graduate degrees for industries that are more stable.

I think you raise legitimate issues.  There are corporations that treat workers like widgets, although I would say that the worst of these are the really big players (not coincidentally these are some of the same corporations engaging in exploitative visa pratices).  For Hawaii I think we need to focus on supporting smaller enterprises and start ups.  Unfortunately, the career stability issue is compounded with start ups - there is no guarantee they will succeed so there is no reasonable expectation of stability in that milieu.

I don't want to sound overly pessimistic about our economic future, but I think we may have seen the end of the "30 years and a retire with a gold watch" days.  The tech sector is quintessentially a disruptive force in the economy, for better and for worse. The "creative destruction" mode of innovation means job stability will be harder and harder to come by.

I do not think that is the end of the discussion but, like you, I think we need to figure out how to reward people who commit to careers in the tech sector over the long run.

J. David Beutel said:

I am in favor of more public investment in STEM education, of course, and I cannot object very much to STEM visas after going to Japan on a work visa myself.  I too want a vibrant tech sector in the US, especially Hawaii.  But, when I hear corporations complain that they cannot find the workers they need, there is one factor that they often fail to mention.  These champions of the free market must realize that if they offered better jobs, they could find more workers.  It is not just a matter of compensation, but stability and training.

Workforce development sounds like a resource from the perspective of the corporation.  But, these workers have to be intelligent, so we need to consider this from their perspective too.  Outsourcing and treating workers as fungible commodities, to be employed on demand as a best fit of esoteric skills or requirements, may be good for the corporation, but it is bad for the workers.  A couple of my coworkers have quit our industry because of this very situation, going back to school and getting graduate degrees for industries that are more stable.

I agree, innovation and stability are at odds, although I like both of them.  I applaud your looking beyond the zero-sum game, for a win-win that will strengthen our tech sector.

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