Dr. Norm Matloff: Obama Nonplussed By Call From Wife Of Engineer Displaced By H-1Bs
Here's the video of the incident described by Dr. Norm Matloff below
Dr. Norm Matloff writes to his H-1B/L-1/offshoring e-newsletter
Something that happened this evening is one of the most remarkable events I've seen in all the years I've been writing about the H-1B work visa and age discrimination.
I was originally going to report on an article on the age problem in the tech industry that ran in over the weekend. Nice piece, in the Bay Area edition of the New York Times, sourced from the Bay Citizen. I will indeed discuss this article later in this posting, but let me lead with this evening's case in point:
President Obama held a live video chat this evening, and one Jennifer Weddel of Fort Worth, TX, managed to get in a question: "Why does the government continue to extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my [engineer] husband with no job?”
Mr. Weddel (I don't know if he and his wife share a surname, but for brevity I'll assume so here) is a semiconductor engineer, now out of work for three years. This of course is diametrically opposite to what Obama has been telling the country, that we have a SHORTAGE of engineers. He's called for producing 10,000 more engineers, and emphasized in his State of the Union address last week liberalizing H-1B and/or green cards to keep foreign tech workers in the U.S., to remedy that "shortage."
Obama's answer to Ms. Weddel was that, well, there are engineers and then there are engineers, and talked about specialization. He pointed out that, what with the housing bust and all, civil engineers are not in high demand these days. He then asked Ms. Weddel what kind of engineer her husband is, and she replied that he a semiconductor engineer--exactly the kind of worker Obama thinks is in short supply!
Obama looked a bit caught off balance by that, and said he'd like to know the details, because "the word we're getting is that somebody like that should be getting work right away." He asked Weddel to send him her husband's CV.
Some of the engineers and programmers who oppose the H-1B program might be saying now, as they read this, "Yes! The President will finally hear the truth about the H-1B visa! He'll discover it's a sham, and he fix the problem!"
Well, let's think about that, reason out some scenarios of what might happen now, assuming that Obama does indeed ask his staff to follow up on this.
I would guess that Obama's staff's industry contacts will make sure that Mr. Weddel will get a job out of all this. For him NOT to get a job would risk having the truth come out--which is that H-1B is about AGE, a way for employers to avoid hiring older (35+) Americans. When they run out of young Americans to hire, they have a large pool of young H-1Bs to turn to.
Now, assuming Mr. Weddel does get a job, what will Obama's staff do about the question his earlier predicament raised? Will they say, "Well, maybe the industry hasn't been fully truthful to us in their claims of an engineering shortage"? And if they do say that, will they relay that concern to Obama, and if so, will he in turn start to question his doing the industry's bidding on the H-1B issue?
A lot of ifs there, and my guess is No to all of the above. They'll simply report to Obama, "Good news, Mr. President--Weddel's husband has found a job," and he'll say "Great, next issue." He'll simply assume that the guy was an anomaly, had somehow fallen through the cracks.
Of course, that's not what SHOULD happen. Obama and his staff should ask, "Now, wait a minute...how could this guy be unemployed for three years in Texas, one of the biggest tech states in America?" But they won't ask it, either because they are so mesmerized by the industry lobbyists or because they are so financially beholden to those same lobbyists, or a combination of both. Cognitive dissonance ought to be at work here, but I doubt that it will.
In addition, there is the possibility that Obama and/or his staff are already skeptical of the industry's claims, but simply cannot afford to relinquish the industry's campaign donations. An internal document unearthed last year from the papers of the Clinton White House talks of "call[ing the] industry's bluff re: their shortage of really highly skilled and desirable workers." If that were the case with the Obama folks, Obama's surprised reaction to Weddel may have been somewhat feigned.
The worst possibility in my mind is that the Obama people take the classic Democratic Party approach and decide that what Mr. Weddel needs is...TRAINING! (Whenever I trash the Democrats like this I feel compelled to remind everyone that I'm a lifelong Democrat myself, no ulterior motive here.)
The reason training doesn't work is that older workers are expensive. After training (which many don't need anyway), they are STILL expensive. So training does nothing.
Which brings me to the New York Times/Bay Citizen article (enclosed at the end of this message). The piece does a good job of getting the point across that Mr. Weddel is definitely not alone. On the contrary, he's pretty much the norm. However, the article drops the ball in not identifying the central issue--MONEY, in the sense, once again, that the older workers are perceived as simply being too expensive.
I tried to get this point across in the reporter's interview of me last week, but I got the sense, correctly as it turns out, that his mind was already made up: The problem these older engineers have is that the technology has simply passed them by; they just don't have the latest skill sets. I pointed out that many older engineers are exact matches for jobs listed on companies' Web sites, yet never get so much as a phone call in response to their application. But by that time he'd already heard too much from others that the problem was skill sets. (More on his interviewees below.)
Ms. Weddel said she'd been married about 10 years, and she looked about 30 or so to me, which would likely put her husband in or near the danger zone I've been warning about: age 35. The industry may tell Obama that Mr. Weddel lacks some particular new technological skill, but that'll probably be just a pretext. The REAL reason engineers like Mr. Weddel have trouble finding work was well illustrated in a rare slip by Microsoft I've cited before:
Microsoft...Senior Vice-President and Chief Technical Officer David Vaskevitch...acknowledges that the vast majority of Microsoft hires are young, but that is because older workers tend to go into more senior jobs and THERE ARE FEWER OF THOSE POSITIONS TO BEGIN WITH.
It's like the old General Motors notion of "planned obsolescence," only for people rather than cars. And the H-1B program, made up overwhelming of young workers, is what fuels all this. In pre-H-1B days, it was assumed that engineers and programmers would learn new technological skills on their own, as part of their jobs; now, they often are not given that chance.
Reporter Glantz has written an engaging piece, certainly recommended reading, but as mentioned, it misses the boat on the central issue, that older engineers are just too expensive. Moreover, it's a pity that he restricted his research (he did tell me he was on short deadline) in employment counseling to government-financed agencies such as NOVA, and industry-tied statistics gatherers such as Hancock. Glantz would have gotten a much more accurate picture had he talked to private employment agencies, i.e. "headhunters," who would have told him that, in Microsoft's succinct words, "there are fewer [senior] positions to begin with."
As I said, Mr. Weddel is, if anything, typical. I just talked yesterday to a new PhD in a tech field. He had worked in industry for some years before returning to grad school, and did a dissertation which uses state-of-the-art technology, on a very practical topic. He had spent about 10 years at two brand-name firms, working on key projects. He's articulate and well-liked. So, he's just what Obama claims to want. Yet he told me all his fellow students doing research in that field are gettting showered with job offers, but nothing for him so far. He is also in his mid-30s.
Mr. President, how many Mr. Weddels will it take to convince you that something is terribly wrong with the H-1B program--and not just with the Indian "bodyshops"?
Aaron Glantz's article follows below.
By Aaron Glantz, The New York Times, January 28, 2012
¶ Silicon Valley may be booming again, but times are still tough for the 200 out-of-work professionals who crowd into Sunnyvale’s City Hall every Thursday morning.
¶ Most of them hold advanced degrees in engineering and have more than a decade of experience in the technology sector. They fill all of the seats in the City Council chamber and spill out into the aisles.
¶ They are members of Pro Match, a government-financed support group and “interactive career resource center” for educated older workers who have suddenly, and usually involuntarily, found themselves on the job market. Most have been out of work for months.
¶ The job market “is not the same as it was years ago,” said Massimo Sutera, 45, a microprocessor engineer who was laid off last year when his firm, Zoran Corporation, a video chip maker, was acquired by the British firm C.S.R., which promptly scaled back its Sunnyvale operations, discontinuing its investment in digital television systems-on-a-chip. “It’s a mess.”
¶ While Web-based companies like Facebook and Google are scouring the world for new talent to hire, older technology workers often find that their skills are no longer valued.
¶ Part of the problem, analysts said, is that many of the companies shedding jobs are technology manufacturers, while most of the companies that are hiring are Internet-based.
¶ While employment figures published by the state Employment Development Department show that Silicon Valley’s technology sector has more than made up for job losses that occurred early in the recession, the rebound has not helped everyone.
¶ Cisco Systems, a maker of computer networking equipment that is Santa Clara County’s largest private employer, laid off 1,331 workers last year. The semiconductor sector, which used to be the lifeblood of the South Bay’s economy, has lost 4,600 jobs since 2008.
¶ “These are people who know how to run a factory floor, but most of these new companies don’t care about that,” said Connie Buck, a career counselor who helps run Pro Match.
¶ As a result, the South Bay’s unemployment rate, which stood at 8.9 percent in December, remains higher than the national average.
¶ “The pace of change is just breathtaking,” said Russell Hancock, president and chief executive of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a research group backed by businesses and local governments. “We’ve entered a strange new world. There are opportunities, but they are different. You have to be edgy and supercreative.”
¶ “You’re not going to get a job that’s going to be assembly and filing and coding,” Mr. Hancock said, “and frankly, that can leave a lot of the older set a little bewildered.”
¶ Hiring managers at the Bay Area’s fastest-growing technology companies were blunt. Seth Williams, a director of staffing at Google, said his firm was looking for candidates who are “passionate” and “truly have a desire to change the world.”
¶ Brendan Browne, who heads hiring at the professional networking site LinkedIn, said his firm wanted every new hire to be entrepreneurial. Mr. Browne said that approximately 25 percent of LinkedIn’s new hires came from the company’s recruitment efforts at colleges and universities.
¶ Lori Goler, the head of human resources and recruiting efforts at Facebook, said her company was looking for the “college student who built a company on the side, or an iPhone app over the weekend.” The company also hires more-experienced workers, if “they are results-focused and can deliver again.”
¶ Regardless of age, Ms. Goler said, “We ask: Are they going to get to do what they love to do for fun at work?”
¶ Some observers say much of this language is just code for age discrimination. They point to the case of Brian Reid, a 52-year-old manager who was fired by Google in 2004 — nine days before the company announced plans to go public — after his supervisors, including the company’s vice president for engineering operations, allegedly called him a poor “cultural fit,” an “old guy” and a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.”
¶ Mr. Reid sued Google for age discrimination and said that his unvested stock options would have been worth at least $45 million if he had stayed there.
¶ Google denied the charges and asked that the suit be dismissed, calling such remarks “stray comments.” But the California Supreme Court ruled that the claims, if true, would constitute discrimination. The case was resolved out of court “to the mutual satisfaction of all parties,” said Lori Ochaltree, Mr. Reid’s lawyer, who declined to say how much the settlement was.
¶ A Google spokesman declined to comment on the case or the amount of the settlement.
¶ In an interview, Norman S. Matloff, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who has studied hiring patterns in the technology sector, said workers over 35 regularly face discrimination by technology companies.
¶ Kris Stadelman, director of NOVA, the local work force investment board, which released a survey of human resource directors at 251 Bay Area technology companies last July, said that in her experience, candidates began to be screened out once they reached 40.
¶ “Especially in social media, cloud computing and mobile apps, if you’re over 40 you’re perceived to be over the hill,” Ms. Stadelman said.
¶ Getting hired is especially difficult for unemployed workers who have been laid off after many years at a single company, Ms. Stadelman said, because highly sought-after engineers often change firms regularly in an effort to stay on the cutting edge.
¶ The issue of discrimination against laid-off workers has caught the eye of lawmakers. Earlier this month, Assemblyman Michael Allen, a Democrat from Santa Rosa, introduced a bill that would make it illegal for an employer to “intentionally refuse to offer employment to an individual because of the individual’s status as unemployed.”
¶ Ms. Stadelman said that her agency encouraged unemployed workers to emphasize their achievements rather than their experience, not only in interviews but also on their résumés and LinkedIn profiles.
¶ “I had a LinkedIn profile before, but it did not include my branding” to show strengths rather than just job experience, said Euclid Taylor, a veteran account manager who was laid off last September when his company, dpiX, a sensor array maker, shut down its offices in Palo Alto and moved to Colorado Springs.
¶ On his current LinkedIn profile, Mr. Taylor, who has gray hair around his temples, plays down his decade of service to dpiX and advertises himself as an “analytical thinker and creative problem solver who effectively collaborates with multifunctional high-performance teams.”
¶ Such retooling has brought success to many of Pro Match’s members, but few of them have been hired by Silicon Valley’s more glamorous tech companies.
¶ According to the organization’s records, 253 of its 583 participants found jobs last year, but just four were hired by Google. Apple, whose headquarters is just three miles away, hired one. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter hired none.
¶ Still, said Ms. Goler, the Facebook executive, older workers should not be discouraged from applying. She said her company wants to hire people of all ages and experience levels. “If you’ve built great things before,” she said, “you can build great things again.”