News Column

Tech-firm Immigration Debate Is a Ploy, Critics Say

August 5, 2013

Joe Garofoli

hispanic computer lab

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg will be diving deeper into partisan politics Monday when he speaks in San Francisco before a screening of "Documented," a new documentary that highlights the plight of young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

But many of Silicon Valley's biggest firms have spent millions trying to shape a different part of the immigration overhaul legislation before Congress -- the part that critics say ensures that they have a steady supply of highly skilled immigrant workers at the lowest possible cost.

Tech interests want to increase the number of temporary guest worker visas, known as H-1B visas, in the immigration measures wending through Congress. And Congress is listening. The Senate passed a bill that would double the number of visas issued annually, and many in the House are supportive.

The boost in this type of visa -- which enables employers to temporarily hire workers holding at least an undergraduate degree -- comes in response to a long-held Silicon Valley claim: There's a shortage of qualified U.S. tech workers to fill the available jobs.

But a growing number of academics and others who have studied the claim say it isn't backed up by reality. They say the employers prefer foreign workers because they can hire and retain them at a lower cost.

Not the 'best and brightest'

"We don't find any evidence of a shortage," said Hal Salzman, a professor of public policy and planning at Rutgers University and co-author of a recent study that disputes the conventional valley wisdom.

Salzman's April study found there was "no lack of domestic graduates or existing domestic STEM workers." STEM is the acronym for workers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Economically, if there was a shortage, wages would "get bid up," Salzman said. "You don't find that anywhere. In fact, you find quite the opposite."

While tech leaders often say that they need to expand the visa program so that they can attract the "best and the brightest" -- the foreign students they're attracting aren't the best nor the brightest, said Norman Matloff, a UC Davis professor of computer science and a longtime critic of the tech industry's cries about a shortage.

"You know and I know that the industry hires the best PR people in the world, and they know what buttons to push," Matloff said.

"They're pushing the buttons of people in Congress. Saying 'best and brightest' is one. The word 'innovation' is another. 'We're going to have to send it offshore.' They know they're going to get a response if they say these things," Matloff said.

"Compared to Americans of the same education and age, the former foreign students turn out to be weaker than, or at most comparable to, the Americans in terms of salary, patent applications, Ph.D. dissertation awards, and quality of the doctoral program in which they studied," Matloff wrote in a study for the Economic Policy Institute. Several labor union leaders serve on the institute's board of directors.

But one of Silicon Valley's leaders said the academic studies aren't seeing what employers are.

"If I were a flip person, and I'm not, I'd say, 'Climb out of the academic chair and try to run a business and recruit talent,' " said Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade association that represents 375 of Silicon Valley's top companies. Last week, Guardino led a dozen valley CEOs on an immigration reform lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., focusing on 31 key Republican legislators.

The group assured wary GOP legislators that if they support comprehensive reform -- including a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. illegally -- "we will have your back" if you are challenged in a primary, Guardino said. For the past year, the trade group has been partnering with unlikely allies -- including religious and labor groups -- to lobby Congress.

5,000 jobs going unfilled

If there isn't a shortage of tech talent, Guardino asked, then why does Microsoft have 5,000 open jobs in the U.S. "that they can't fill? Do you not think they'd be just clamoring if there were people born in the U.S. or even otherwise to fill those slots?"

"Don't these folks doing these studies realize that we would leap for joy if we could hire everybody we need in the United States? The hassle and the expense of going through the H-1B and green card process is not something that employers want to pay for," Guardino said.

In a recent analysis of companies intending to hire foreign workers through H-1B visas, Bright.com, a San Francisco employment site, found that there were four qualified domestic electric engineers per H-1B visa request and 12 qualified domestic financial analysts. Overall, it found more qualified applicants than jobs available.

But local and regional demands can differ. In San Francisco, Bright.com found that there is a high demand for application developers but that "only 0.54 qualified candidates per position can be found locally for this role."

The numbers faced by those looking for tech jobs in Silicon Valley are even more stark.

Every week, ProMatch, a Silicon Valley job resource center that's sponsored in part by the California Employment Development Department, convenes a meeting for job seekers in Sunnyvale City Hall.

Job competition fierce

Last week, it was packed with nearly 150 job seekers, many saying employers are flooded with so many resumes that they can afford to be picky. One told of having to undergo 14 interviews over 14 weeks with the same company before being hired.

"We never had a problem finding enough qualified people here," said Wayne Hall, a San Jose resident who has worked in -- and hired in -- the valley for two decades at semiconductor companies. Now, he's looking for work after being laid off three weeks ago.

"I remember going to a job fair at San Jose State and coming home with a stack of resumes an inch thick," Hall said.

Leila Dibble, a Campbell teacher who is trying to break into the tech field, hears that "employers are getting 400 and 500 applicants for a job. Even if they scale that down to 10 percent, that's a lot of people."

Dan Ruth, an IT expert who has been looking for work for seven months, said the competition is so stiff, it's a challenge to get a face-to-face interview in some fields.

"It's a buyer's market right now," said Ruth, a San Jose resident who has worked in the valley for 18 years. "Hiring managers are being really choosy. I don't think that there's a talent shortage. I'm skeptical. I'd like to see the numbers on that."

Joe Garofoli is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @joegarofoli

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