HR News & Trends, HR Technology

Is There a Big Shortage of American Engineers? A New Study Says No

H-1B-Visa

The drumbeat has been loud and long, and it always comes down to the same issue: we have a huge shortage of engineering and other skilled talent here in the U.S.

This conventional wisdom about the severe lack of engineering talent has fueled all manner of commentary among American technology executives, economists, and job seekers themselves, because U.S. companies seem to think that the answer is to increase the number of H-1B visas so more foreign workers from places like India can come and fill these jobs that there are not enough Americans for.

That’s why this new survey, highlighted today in The New York Times, is sure to amplify the debate.

“Plenty of potential candidates exist”

As The Times Bits blog puts it,

Although certain kinds of engineers are in short supply in the United States, plenty of potential candidates exist for thousands of positions for which companies want to import guest workers, according to an analysis of three million résumés of job seekers in the United States.”

Yes, you read that right. The Times story said that “plenty of potential candidates exist for thousands of positions for which companies want to import guest workers.” It’s what so many out-of-work, and in many cases, aging American engineers have been saying for years.

The Times story goes on to say:

The numbers, prepared by a company called Bright, which collects résumés and uses big data tools to connect job seekers with openings, enter a contentious debate over whether tech companies should be allowed to expand their rolls of guest workers. In lobbying Congress for more of these temporary visas, called H-1B visas, the technology industry argues there are not enough qualified Americans. Its critics, including labor groups, say bringing in guest workers is a way to depress wages in the industry.

Many economists take issue with the industry’s argument, too. One side points out that wages have not gone up across the board for engineers, suggesting that there is no stark labor shortage. Another counters that unemployment rates in the sector are minuscule and that in any event, H-1B workers represent a tiny fraction of the American workforce.

“I didn’t expect this result,” said Steve Goodman, Bright’s chief executive.”

Yes, I would expect that just about any American CEO would  be surprised by a survey that finds there may be a great deal of talent out there right under their nose, because it flies in the face of all the rhetoric coming from Bill Gates and other technology company executives who have been aggressively lobbying Congress to increase the numbers of foreign technology workers beyond the 20,000 per year who currently are allowed into the U.S. to work under the H-1B visa program.

“Any company can find domestic candidates for their positions”

Here’s a link to the Bright survey. It is VERY interesting reading, especially if you are a recruiter, HR professional, or some other kind of talent manager who has had trouble hiring engineers and technology workers.

As the Bright analysis puts it:

Within the top 10 jobs, there are an estimated 134 percent more candidates nationwide than there were positions requested. Additionally, we found that domestic student enrollment in computer and mathematical graduate programs has grown 88 percent in the last decade, while foreign student enrollment has dwindled 13 percent. There does not appear to be a sudden mass shortage of educated domestic workers, rather a handful of outsourcing firms who file a majority of the LCAs and are uninterested in domestic candidates. 82 percent of the positions requested by the top 20 companies were requested by outsourcing firms.

We believe any company can find domestic candidates for their positions by using a tool like Bright, which searches millions of active resumes and surfaces qualified candidates. …”

Of course, the Bright survey has a lot of caveats to it, as The Times notes:

Bright’s study is unlikely to end the debate, partly because it rests on the company’s proprietary algorithm to determine who is a “good fit” for a particular job opening. Its algorithm uses a range of criteria, including work experience and education, but also work descriptions that indicated a high likelihood of other skills. Its analysis also doesn’t specify how many job openings there are at a particular point in time, or whether they are sufficient to accommodate both American engineers and foreign guest workers.”

But whether you buy the Bright survey or not, it highlights an issue that is worth a lot more focus: are there Americans who are capable, perhaps with a little  bit of additional training, to fill many of these jobs? In other words, should American technology executives be pushed to look harder at the pool of millions of unemployed (or underemployed) American workers available today?

That’s been the burning debate. My guess is that this Bright survey, and the coverage of it in a publication like The New York Times, just threw another big log on that fire.

John Hollon is Vice President for Editorial of TLNT.com, and the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices. Contact him at john@tlnt.com, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/johnhollon.
  • Not impressed in the SF bay

    There are so many angles to this debate, and this “study”. What Bright provided, is an *opinion piece*, and certainly one that hits it’s own competition – ie., the piece is completely biased in it’s own self-interest.

    Personally, I deplore H1B’s, because it let’s up on the pressure of the home-team educational system to deliver for our country’s needs. I also have plenty of experience with ‘guest’ workers (H1B), having worked with, for, and supervised, as well as availing myself of the program when in dire need (it’s primary purpose).

    Please look at the companies who are the top 20 utilizers – consulting, consulting, consulting. In most cases, these foreign workers may have the technical chops (my experience there is that even that’s a gamble), but no cultural or business norms context. On the surface this may seem like cheaper, however the product is very often inferior, and chock full of issues a locally trained professional’s deliverable won’t have.

    But…I am a professional consultant in the SF bay area, and we simply cannot find local qualified candidates at any price. Our retention rate is under 25%, most hires are simply lazy, stuck in old tech, or have egos that cannot allow them to be “workers”. I’m actually focusing on non-tech revenue streams, to avoid dealing with the crazy, primadonnas, and ultimately customer-crashing trash that call themselves computing professionals. Those with patience that utilize the H1B program – well, at least the work is getting done, which our economy needs – I just wish it were done better.

    • amandamore

      If one buys right out of college what do you expect? And most companies get work done through contractors that work for some slim niche for many companies. Some of those contractors you could bring in house but would they fit into the culture of the young and hip? And would you pay them the inflation adjusted wages they got 30 years ago? I’m guessing not. i also think if you use your precious sort HR program on the world there may be five people with the magic acronyms you think the order would fulfill. Stuff gets done in Silicon Valley. Just maybe not by such a retro thinking organization.

    • anna

      Never stop hiring, there are great people out there. If you believe your employees to be marginal than let them go. Hiring many and letting go just as many sends a message “do it right or there is alway someone else”. Im the owner of a small business and I may have to hire 5 people (extreme) before I find a decent (good, hardworking) employee.
      The US is chucked full of people that are, good, hard working, smart, lazy
      marginal, etc. but so are other countries and one thing I know the U.S.
      as big as it is has more good hardworking people the any other country.
      Dont let the corporate high-teck community dictate salaries of the engineering field.
      This country is once again being swallowed up by the corporate (monopoly) money machine.

  • amandamore

    A Seimans manager tonight fed this BS. I explained that if they paid the same as 30 years ago then they could get all the engineers they wanted. After he said it, it dawned on me that “global competiveness” means paying Americans the same wages as the people in India. He was at a public school forum in orlando,florida and I told him “that is not a problem. This county throws ONE OUT OF THREE kids to the streets and doesn’t graduate them from high school.” Cheap minimum wage janitors for disney contractors. The FCAT on steroids, Common Core, will make sure even more flunk out. Bill Gates and this Global Conditions MBA Seimans Manager would find those people roaming the streets “collateral damage” for their vision of hundreds of cheap engineers knocking down their doors to work for half what their parents did.

  • Old man Ed

    There is no shortage of engineers in the US. There are too many lawyers and insurance companies. Look in any yellow pages in the US. You will see few if any engineers and many thousands of lawyers and insurance company ads.