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

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.

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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 managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.