Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Is There Really a Shortage of American Engineers and Scientists?

As a golf fan, The Masters is one of my highlights of the year. But as much as I enjoyed the tournament last weekend, the constant barrage of 30 second ads from ExxonMobil like this one stressing the importance of attracting more young American people to engineering and science made me a bit nuts — especially as an unemployed engineer.

While that seems laudable, it ignores a more important problem that we are having trouble keeping all of our present American engineers and scientists employed. While producing more engineers and scientists may sound like a noble endeavor, are we not doing our children a disservice if they land up with an inadequate number of career opportunities in their chosen fields?

As ExxonMobil points out in an article, The need to invest in math and science:

The U.S. ranks 16th of 17 nations in the proportion of 24-year-olds who earn degrees in natural science or engineering as opposed to other majors; and,

Those undergraduates who switch from science and engineering majors to other majors “are often among the most highly qualified college entrants, and they are disproportionately women and students of color.”
Unfortunately, many are now arguing that this reduction in engineering and science majors is producing a shortage of engineers and scientists. And further, they argue that this shortage requires us to outsource along with bringing in more immigrant labor to make up this shortfall. But on the contrary, this is just a natural reaction to an excess of engineers and scientists in the American market that is being made worse by outsourcing and immigration.

Engineers have historically had good employment prospects. But that has all changed dramatically in the last decade according to
this article from 2003 by Ron Hira for IEEE, the professional society of electrical engineers. It’s fair to say that things have gotten worse since then.

Electrical, electronics, and computer hardware engineers continue to face a higher unemployment rate than the general population, and over double the rate for other managers and professionals. The news for engineering managers is even worse, with an unemployment rate of 8%.

For comparison purposes, the unemployment rate for electrical engineers was 1.2% in 2000, less than one-fifth its current level. And throughout the 1980s, at a time when unemployment rates for all workers got as high as 9.5%, electrical and electronics engineering unemployment rates never rose above 2%.
So the fact that there is far more unemployment in engineering now than in the past suggests that there is something different going on. Many who have been squeezed out of the employment market charge that it is in good part the result of increased H1-B immigrant workers who are willing to work for less money than Americans have been traditionally paid.

That allegation is supported by this provocative article,
The Shortage Myth - The Lies at the End of the American Dream.

Last June a revealing marketing video from the (Pittsburgh) law firm, Cohen & Grigsby appeared on the Internet. The video demonstrated the law firm's techniques for getting around US law governing work visas in order to enable corporate clients to replace their American employees with foreigners who work for less. The law firm's marketing manager, Lawrence Lebowitz, is upfront with interested clients: "our goal is clearly NOT to find a qualified and interested US worker."

If an American somehow survives the weeding out process, "have the manager of that specific position step in and go through the whole process to find a legal basis to disqualify them for this position--in most cases there doesn't seem to be a problem."

No problem for the employer he means, only for the expensively educated American university graduate who is displaced by a foreigner imported on a work visa justified by a nonexistent shortage of trained and qualified Americans.
In the comic strip Dilbert, one of the characters is Catbert - Evil HR Director as a parody of the “evil” of some Human Resources departments. If you watch the above Cohen & Grigsby video you will see that the evil committed by the lawyers and human resources people to screw qualified American workers out of earning a living is no parody. And it is no laughing matter.

What is saddest is that the shortage of American engineers and scientists will indeed eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. College students are deserting engineering and science for more lucrative degrees like law and MBAs. And who can blame them? Engineering and science degrees are among the most difficult fields of study — and now yield comparatively mediocre pay and job prospects to boot.

When Congress considers immigration reform, they need to examine what percentage of different companies' hires (especially the larger ones) are foreign workers brought in on H1-B visas. If the percentages are high especially for jobs where domestic unemployment is high, it may suggest that these companies are indeed gaming the system to squeeze out qualified American workers in place of lower paid foreign ones. It is a common practice for many states and localities to provide tax subsidies and other sweeteners for businesses to locate there because they are said to be providing local jobs. Can’t we at least make sure that US workers are getting a fair crack at all of those jobs?

It’s great that we are the Land of Opportunity for those around the world who come to our shores. But we must not neglect our own workers in the process!

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