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Genius Glut? Too Many Tech Workers?

February 8, 2013

“America’s Genius Glut”, an op ed essay by Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute in today’s NYTimes, will burst the balloon of those who believe our schools are not turning out enough scientists or workers trained in technology. The basis for the article is outlined in the opening paragraph:

WHILE genuine immigration reform has the potential to fix a seriously broken system, four senators have introduced a bill to solve a problem we don’t have: the supply of high-tech workers.

The article then contradicts conventional wisdom on two fronts: America is falling behind in science and technology; and American businesses do not have an adequate supply of workers with high-tech skills. This makes the “solution” to this problem, allowing more immigrants to have visas to work in our country, unnecessary— unless the motive is to “…flood the job market with indentured foreign workers, people who could not switch employers to improve their wages or working conditions which, in turn would “…damage the employment prospects of hundreds of thousands of skilled Americans; and narrow the educational pipeline that produces these skilled workers domestically.”

Eisenbrey undercuts the “…falling behind” meme as follows:

America’s technology leadership is not, in fact, endangered. According to the economist Richard B. Freeman, the United States, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, employs a third of its high-tech researchers, accounts for 40 percent of its research and development, and publishes over a third of its science and engineering articles. And a marked new crop of billion-dollar high-tech companies has sprung up in Silicon Valley recently, without the help of an expanded guest-worker program.

He later counters the supply-and-demand argument:

If anything, we have too many high-tech workers: more than nine million people have degrees in a science, technology, engineering or math field, but only about three million have a job in one. That’s largely because pay levels don’t reward their skills. Salaries in computer- and math-related fields for workers with a college degree rose only 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2011. If these skills are so valuable and in such short supply, salaries should at least keep pace with the tech companies’ profits, which have exploded.

So why would we want a bill that allows more foreign workers? Eisenbrey’s answer:

Simple: workers under the H-1B program aren’t like domestic workers — because they have to be sponsored by an employer, they are more or less indentured, tied to their job and whatever wage the employer decides to give them.

And… as noted earlier in this post, the consequences would be very adverse for students and technology workers in our country:

Bringing over more (foreign workers)— there are already 500,000 workers on H-1B visas — would obviously darken job prospects for America’s struggling young scientists and engineers. But it would also hurt our efforts to produce more: if the message to American students is, “Don’t bother working hard for a high-tech degree, because we can import someone to do the job for less,” we could do significant long-term damage to the high-tech educational system we value so dearly.

While I would like to believe our country values our high-tech educational system “dearly”, I can’t help but note that politicians of all stripes have bought into the notion that our schools have “failed” our country and not produced nearly enough scientists and technology workers. And why would they want to repeat that mantra over and over? Hm-m-m… maybe Eisenbrey has the answer?


  1. mib8
    February 11, 2013 at 10:20 pm

    Teitelbaum, Lowell, and Salzman have, in repeated research efforts (separately and together), concluded that we’ve only been employment about a third of new STEM grads in STEM jobs… for years. They’ve said as much in articles and testimony to the House judiciary committee sub-committee on immigration.

    As the years pass after graduation, more and more US citizen STEM workers are squeezed out. This pattern was reported as early as 1998 and seems to continue.

    BLS figures show that computer science and math occupations have had unemployment rates running 2 to 3 times the historical full employment levels for these occupations.

    About a year ago, Steve Camarota, looking at BLS numbers, concluded that we had about 1.8 million US citizen STEM workers not employed in STEM work (either unemployed or involuntarily out of field, as NSF refers to it).

  2. mib8
    February 11, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    More than 9M STEM degrees have been earned by US citizens between 1970 and 2010, according to NCES. Counting those with majors in other fields brings the number up close to 12M Counting auto-didacts increases it yet again. (NSF says some 20%-25% of engineers don’t have engineering degrees, and some 44% of computer wranglers don’t have computer science or MIS degrees.)

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