Dr. Norman Matloff, a professor of Computer Science at the University of California at Davis gave this testimony to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee - Subcommittee on Immigration on April 21, 1998 in response to the software industry pushing to expand the number of visas available under the H-1B program.

Since there is a website (http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/itaa.real.html) that is being updated (as of this writing, December 9, 2002 was the last update), I won't repeat the entire testimony. Instead, I will list some of the highlights.

  • Question: How can we evaluate all these conflicting claims about whether a high-tech labor shortage exists or does not exist?

    Perform this simple five-minute experiment:

    Just call any firm which hires programmers - a large firm, a small one, new, old, any location - and talk to the HR Department. Ask them if it is true that they reject the vast majority of their programming applicants without even an interview. After they confirm this, ask them why they do this, and they will say that the vast majority of the applicants don't have some new software skill set the employer wants, even though the applicants have years of programming experience.

    Here is what you will have learned from this experiment:

    • The industry lobbyists are incorrect when they claim a lack of "bodies," i.e. a lack of people with programming experience. What they really mean (some insincerely, some sincerely) is a lack of programmers with work experience in a specific software skill, say the Java programming language.
    • The industry lobbyists are incorrect when they claim the school system needs to produce more programmers. The technology changes extremely rapidly, so it will always be the case that the vast majority of programmers do not possess the newest software skills - no matter how many programmers the schools produce. Producing more programmers would just give employers more people to reject. (Note that it will not work for a older programmer to take a class in a new skill; the employers insist on actual work experience in the skill.)
    • Thus the industry lobbyists are incorrect when they claim that they only want a temporary increase in the quota for foreign programmers on H-1B work visas, while the educational system works to produce more programmers.

  • Microsoft only hires 2% of its applicants for software positions, and that this rate is typical in the industry. Software employers, large or small, across the nation, concede that they receive huge numbers of résumés but reject most of them without even an interview. One does not have to be a "techie" to see the contradiction here. A 2% hiring rate might be unremarkable in other fields, but not in one in which there is supposed to be a "desperate" labor shortage. If employers were that desperate, they would certainly not be hiring just a minuscule fraction of their job applicants.

  • Most companies spend their training budgets on secretaries and technicians, with much less being spent on programmers and engineers.

    In fact, it is common for a firm to be laying off older workers while simultaneously hiring younger ones with newer skills.

  • Question: Industry employers say they have to hire only programmers with specific software skills, because they have urgent needs to finish a product quickly. Is this true?

    By the industry's own admission, they often leave jobs open for months (an average of 3.7 months in Silicon Valley) until they find a programmer possessing the exact skills match they want. It is thus disingenuous for them to say they need someone who can "be productive immediately, tomorrow."

  • Question: The employers claim to hire the H-1Bs because they have work experience in specific software skills. How is it that the H-1Bs possess skills the Americans don't?

    Often the H-1Bs don't have the background they claim. An audit by a U.S. consulate in India found that fraud was quite common. Similarly, reports from American programmers who work with H-1Bs indicate that rather than having work experience in the given skill, many H-1Bs either have only had a quick course or are learning the skill on the job. Ironically, the latter is what I recommend that the employers have older American programmers do, but the difference is that the H-1Bs are much cheaper than the older Americans, so the employers do this with the H-1Bs but not with the older Americans.

  • Question: The industry dismisses concerns about older programmers by claiming that those programmers' experience is in COBOL, a language popular in the 1960s and 1970s but radically different from the languages used today. Is this true?

    Virtually none of the older programmers I talk to around the nation who have trouble finding programming work are COBOL people. Their experience is in the C programming language. Java and C++, two of the hottest languages today, are extensions of the C language.

    The industry lobbyists then claim that the C language is not enough, asserting that Java and C++, with their "object-oriented programming" (OOP) philosophy, represent an "abrupt change in the paradigms of programming." This is simply false. Those of us "dinosaurs" who have been programming since way back in the days of punched cards have heard claims of "abrupt paradigm changes" many times as programming languages have evolved over the years. The claims have always simply been hype. Programming is programming is programming, and it has always been a straightforward matter to quickly become productive in a new language.

  • Question: Are U.S. universities producing enough computer science graduates to meet industry's needs?

    The leading industry lobbying group for increasing the H-1B quota, the ITAA, claimed in its original literature in 1997 that American students had neither the interest nor the background to study computer science. But in actually, the ITAA knew that computer science enrollment was skyrocketing, and it deliberately suppressed that fact in its report. New computer science enrollment doubled nationwide in the latter half of the 1990s.

  • Question: Why are the H-1Bs de facto indentured servants?

    Most H-1Bs hope to get U.S. permanent residency status, i.e. green cards. But during their sponsorship by employers for green cards, they are in essence indentured servants: The green card process takes several years, so H-1Bs dare not change employers. Changing employers would mean starting the green-card clock all over again.

    The legislation passed in late 2000 tempers the indentured servitude problem somewhat, but is far from a solution. Immigration attorneys estimate that H-1Bs will still typically have a period of indentured servitude of 3 or 4 years.

  • Question: The industry says H-1Bs comprise only a small percentage of their workers. If that is true, why is there such a controversy?

    The Department of Commerce, in their report Digital Economy 2000 (June 5, 2000), found that H-1Bs now account for 28% of all information technology industry hires requiring at least a Bachelor's degree.

    Moreover, many of the large employers claiming that only a small proportion of their work forces consists of H-1Bs are hiding behind the fact that they rent many H-1B workers from agencies

  • What should be done

    Technology will continue to change rapidly in the coming years. Therefore unless employers abandon their current obsession with the latest specific software skills, the perceived/claimed labor "shortage" - and the heavy usage of H-1Bs as a percentage of the programmer workforce - will be permanent.

    • Congress needs to change the goal of the H-1B to the original H-1 purpose, that of bringing in the "geniuses".
    • Employers should hire on the basis of general programming talent, not specific skills. As shown above, the employers are shooting themselves in the foot with their current obsession with skills.
    • Recruiters should help convince employers not to hire on the basis of skill sets.
    • Universities should strive toward making sure that every student works in at least one internship during his/her college career.
    • Current students need to acquire internship experience during their college career.
    • Experienced programmers simply cannot get a job using a new skill by taking a course in that skill; employers demand actual work experience. So, how can one deal with this Catch-22 situation?

      The answer is, sad to say, that you should engage in frequent job-hopping. Note that the timing is very delicate, with the windows of opportunity usually being very narrow.

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