Dr. Norm Matloff Defends Brimelow and Dobbs From Charges Of Xenophobia
March 17, 2009, 03:03 PM
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In Dr. Matloff's email below, he describes trying to have a conference about the effect of H-1Bs on American workers, and being caught up in an ethnic studies argument instead:"Second, one of the speakers from the UCLA conference was an attendee to this one, and in his discussion with me at lunch, he took the party-line Ethnic Studies professor point of view: Criticism of H-1B reflects negatively on Asian-Americans, and that's that, stop criticizing H-1B. He knows my close ties to the Chinese-American community, and though I pointed out to him that the large numbers of Asian-American programmers and engineers means that they are prime victims of employers' use of H-1Bs, it didn't move him. He also claimed that Lou Dobbs and Peter Brimelow are xenophobes, again ignoring my arguments to the contrary. As I had seen and admired this professor's research in the past, I was taken aback by his flatly ideological view of things."

Of course this is the problem with modern immigration debate—even if we say that immigration restriction is not about race for us, (as Tom Tancredo did recently) it is about race for the immigrants themselves.

Dr. Norm Matloff writes:

Last Friday I attended the third in a series of conferences sponsored by the Sloan Coast Program on Science and Engineering Workers, this one held at Stanford. The first was held at UC Davis last year; see here for my summary.

The second conference was held at UCLA in January. I did not attend, as it seemed to be focused on ethnic issues rather than on labor. More on this point below.

This third conference concerned the educational quality of the foreign workers, whether H-1B or offshore, with, it turned out, an emphasis on the latter.

The local organizer, Rafiq Dossani, did a great job, and he even included a tour of Google at lunchtime. I really appreciated the atmosphere of the conference—on the one hand, very professional and thankfully nonpolemic, and on the other hand very informal. One speaker, an Indian-American Silicon Valley CEO who offshores some of his work, epitomized the informality by answering my question about H-1Bs as cheap labor by saying, "Well, since we're among friends here rather than testifying before the Senate, I would answer this way..."

Each one of the speakers was involved in offshoring, most of them as CEOs or high-level managers. Some of the firms were startups, others were mid-sized, and several were huge—Intel, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Wipro.

Several speakers viewed H-1B as an important vehicle for offshoring, consistent with Prof. Ron Hira's research and the famous statement by the Indian Minister of Commerce that "H-1B is the outsourcing [i.e. offshoring] visa." However, in answer to a question from Sloan's Michael Teitelbaum, the TCS speaker did say, "[H-1B] visa issues are pushing us to recruit some American workers."

As I've stated repeatedly, though H-1B is indeed "the outsourcing visa" from India's point of view, from the viewpoint of American employers, H-1B is "the age discrimination visa." The visa is used to hire younger H-1Bs (median age 27) and avoid hiring older (age 35+) U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Since older workers draw higher wages and cost more in health benefits (they are likely married with kids, and have 40-year-old health issues), the employers strive to hire the young; when they run out of young Americans to hire, they hire the young H-1Bs (often skipping even the young Americans, since the young H-1Bs are even cheaper).

Given that, imagine how my attention was riveted to one particular slide presented by the TCS speaker. In discussing the working-age labor supply, the TCS speaker defined "working age" as having the range 20-35! His upper bound of 35 coincided exactly with the cutoff point I always use in describing H-1B as a means for employers to avoid hiring older (yes, 35+) Americans.

Since I had asked a question about H-1B as cheap labor, one of the managers, Otto Schmid from NVidia (and previously a small firm later acquired by NVidia), approached me after the conference was over, saying, "In the late 1990s, I simply could not hire the engineers I needed. It was NOT an issue of cheap labor. I had to hire H-1Bs, because the Americans just weren't available." My reply was, "You had that perception, but the reality is that HR was not forwarding the American CVs to you, especially those of Americans over the age of 35." Fortunately, I had the TCS "20-35" slide to illustrate and confirm my point. He had quite a look of shock on his face, and said nothing.

Once again, folks: H-1B is largely used as a way to get cheaper labor in the form of younger workers. Some of you will recall the frank comments of an Intel manager on Straight Talk, a weekly television program produced by the Santa Clara County Democratic Club in Silicon Valley, June 10, 2000:

"It's a matter of what are the mechanisms, how does a hiring manager in Silicon Valley get a hold of resume's? What happens is, you get a lot of H-1B resume's. I had to go out myself, instead of relying on the Personnel Dept., to go and advertise at several colleges where I thought I would be able to find some good employees. And lo and behold, I found a very good one at Cal Poly, Pomona."

My colleague Phil Martin also noted that there is huge turnover in this field. There are boom/bust cycles, but once you're spit out during a bust, you generally can't get in during the next boom. This of course again reflects the age issue.

Age IS one of the central issues of H-1B. It would be really helpful if Congress, the press and even many critics of the H-1B program were to understand that.

Contrary to the image that only low-level grunt work is offshored, most of the speakers, including the one from Intel, are offshoring R&D. However, contrary to the perennial "best and the brightest" claim we hear from the industry, several of the speakers noted that they avoid hiring graduates from the Tier I schools in India and China. There was an extended discussion of this, which even carried into the break time.

The speakers in several cases did not "do their homework" well. One quoted a long-discredited figure for the number of yearly engineering graduates in China, and another insisted that the number of computer science students in the U.S. remains quite high, when in fact it is down 50% nationwide, due to student concerns about offshoring and H-1B. I had to cite www.cra.org, a consortium of major U.S. university computer science departments, before she finally let go.

Billl Pearson of Intel made a number of important remarks, none surprising but still important to me as support to various points I've made in my writings. Unlike the claims of TCS et al that "We solve your problems while you sleep," he said time zone differences are big impediments to productivity, "...a challenge...Geography is important only in terms of time zone; good [software] developers are everywhere." He said that he used the CMMI project management system in Intel, just as with TCS et al, but that it is mostly not used in the U.S. (I consider its value to be greatly exaggerated, as even its inventor has stated.) He said that Intel offshores for cost savings, no surprise except to the industry lobbyists. Passive, rote-memory oriented workers have been a big problem to him, as expected culturally in India and especially China, but he's been able to weed them out, and has retained some really good engineers.

Otto Schmid also said that managers in India and China need to provide much more direction to their engineers. Asked about H-1B today, he said the current H-1B cap is not a problem, since the Optional Practical Training section of the F-1 student visa has been extended to 2.5 years. He said that domestic students and U.S.-trained foreign students are equally good.

Rafiq made an interesting comparison in computer science curricula between three top universities in the world: Stanford (of course, since that was the conference site), Imperial College in London and the IITs in India. The chart showed that the UK and Indian institutions require far more CS courses than does Stanford—but Stanford requires far more outside-class work on projects. He concluded that the American system is better on the whole, which I agree with, but the difference was striking. (By the way, the chart also showed that Stanford requires far more courses in social sciences and humanities than do the other two institutions.)

As mentioned, I appreciated the friendly atmosphere, and had a very enjoyable day. There were two mild exceptions, though.

First, one of the speakers, in spite of his friendly, gentlemanly personality, did finally resort to the "Americans are wimps, we Indians/Chinese are your saviors" attitude that I have often seen in Chinese and Indian immigrants in Silicon Valley. This speaker, an Indian, said that Americans are lazy and will lose to India and China. He even joked that he advised his son to learn Mandarin. :-) Needless to say, I have never been pleased with this attitude; I can point to lots of U.S.-native engineers who work long hours and give the company their all, only to be sloughed off from the industry at age 35.

Second, one of the speakers from the UCLA conference was an attendee to this one, and in his discussion with me at lunch, he took the party-line Ethnic Studies professor point of view: Criticism of H-1B reflects negatively on Asian-Americans, and that's that, stop criticizing H-1B. He knows my close ties to the Chinese-American community, and though I pointed out to him that the large numbers of Asian-American programmers and engineers means that they are prime victims of employers' use of H-1Bs, it didn't move him. He also claimed that Lou Dobbs and Peter Brimelow are xenophobes, again ignoring my arguments to the contrary. As I had seen and admired this professor's research in the past, I was taken aback by his flatly ideological view of things.

All in all, it was an excellent conference. It's unfortunate that the selection of speakers resulted in an overemphasis on offshoring. As I've shown statistically, there are just as many American programmers and engineers hurt by H-1Bs working here as by workers offshore. Moreover, as even Bill Gates has said, for many companies they need the work done here rather than abroad, to be close to the customers and management; their desire for cheap labor then translates to hiring H-1Bs instead of sending work offshore.

Norm