Loss of Another American Dream Norman Matloff Immigration Review, Winter 1996Americans tell their children, "If you study hard, go to college, and major in a professional field, you will have a reasonable chance for a fine career." Yet such words have a hollow ring for Cindy, a computer programmer who did all the right things and yet finds herself cast aside, unemployable, at the age of 35. (I have given Cindy and her husband pseudonyms to protect their privacy.)
Cindy has been unable to find work since being laid off by a major defense contractor in Silicon Valley. Yet the same employers who reject her are filling their programming jobs with foreign nationals. The employers, whose public relations experts are now heavily lobbying Congress against tightening of skills-based immigration policies, say that Cindy's skills are outdated.
Sharon Gadberry, president of Transitions Management/Outplacement National notes that job ads will specify "five years of experience---they usually mean no more than that." She explains that "Companies are trying to screen out the older workers." A major motivation appears to be that fresh graduates are cheaper, with foreign nationals being the cheapest of all. A statistical analysis performed by the author on the 1990 Census data revealed that average salaries for foreign-born computer professionals in Silicon Valley were nearly $7,000 lower than among natives of the same age and level of education.
The industry's claim that the issue is skills, not salary, is unwarranted, and does not even jibe with other industry statements made before the issue was raised in Congress. For example, though Microsoft is one of those claiming a need to hire foreign nationals for their knowledge of specific software technologies, CEO Bill Gates described Microsoft hiring criteria thusly last year: "We're not looking for any specific knowledge because things change so fast, and it's easy to learn stuff. You've got to have an excitement about software, a certain intelligence...It's not the specific knowledge that counts."
Gates is correct. Studies cited by software project management expert Barry Boehm, for example, show that experienced programmers become productive in a new technology quite quickly, within a month or so. What really counts is general programming ability, not specific background.
Ironically, Cindy cannot find a job even though her husband Mike is a programming manager at Cadence, a prominent Silicon Valley firm. Cadence hires many foreign-born programmers, and recently represented the industry in a hearing held by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. Mike told me that he is currently having trouble filling several open positions. When I suggested that this is due to his overdefining job requirements to include specific software technologies, he protested that he would be willing to be more flexible, but conceded that Cadence's personnel office automatically rejects applicants whose resume's do not contain certain key words and phrases; Mike never even gets to see the rejected resume's.
One tack taken recently by the industry lobbyists is to claim that they hire foreign Ph.D.'s for research projects because relatively few Americans obtain a Ph.D. This claim too flies in the face of reality.
It is a nonissue to begin with, since very few of the foreigners hired in Silicon Valley have Ph.D.'s. The Census data show that among those computer professionals who entered the U.S. in the five years prior to 1990, Master's degree holders outnumbered Ph.D.'s by a factor of more than 13 to 1, and labor certification application lists show similar ratios.
But more importantly, Ph.D. training is just not needed. Commenting on a Stanford University/RAND report's findings that academia is overproducing Ph.D.'s, Forrest Baskett, whose research group at Silicon Graphics, Inc. is one of the industry's stars, conceded that SGI's jobs do not need Ph.D.'s. Indeed, Baskett even criticized academia for not training its Ph.D.'s properly for industry---directly contrary to the current industry claims that it relies on the background its Ph.D. employees get at the universities.
A Master's degree is not needed either. The foreign-born who have Master's degrees use American graduate study as a steppingstone to come to the U.S., not because they need the extra coursework to do the job. Microsoft's Gates, a programming genius, does not even have an undergraduate degree, let alone graduate training. The same is true for Lawrence Ellison, CEO of the database software giant Oracle Corporation, Apple Computer co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wosniak, and so on. Ron Unz, a multi-millionaire software entrepreneur who claims that immigrants are vital to Silicon Valley, is himself a self-taught programmer.
On the hardware side, one does need formal training in circuits and electronics, but again graduate study is unnecessary. For example Perry Lorenz, a chip designer at National Semiconductor Corporation who has been awarded several patents, has no graduate training. He notes that his colleague Bob Widler, who was such a phenomenal designer that when he retired National actually paid him not to work for anyone else, also had no graduate degree.
In addition, Census and other data show that the wage differential between Bachelor's and Master's degree holders is equivalent to about about two years of work experience. Since a Master's degree takes about two years past a Bachelor's to complete, there is no financial incentive for a domestic student to pursue a Master's. Clearly, employers do not believe graduate study is so valuable after all.
Industry claims that they are getting "the best and the brightest" in hiring foreign nationals, and that American technology relies on immigrants to keep its edge in world competition, simply do not jibe with reality. The major technological advances in the industry have been made by U.S. natives, not immigrants. This can be seen in rough form, for example, in the awards given for industrial innovation by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the nation's main computer science professional society. Of the 39 recipients of the ACM Software System Awards, only one has been an immigrant. Of the 17 recipients of the Eckert-Mauchly Award, given for advances in computer hardware, none has been an immigrant. The same pattern is exhibited repeatedly in the awards given by numerous organizations: in 17 pages of awards listed in the Computer Industry 1994-95 Almanac the vast majority of recipients are U.S. natives.
This is no accident. Whether in a research setting or any other, computer work is fundamentally a creative process. If you assign the same task to 10 programmers, you will get 10 very different programs. And creativity is America's strong point. Professor C.N. Yang of the State University of New York has said that the American innovative spirit is much better than in his native China or even Europe. He describes the frustration of his physics graduate students from China and Taiwan, who were stars back home but hit a brick wall when they try research here, shackled by the rote-memory training they got in Asia. The Japanese are masters at manufacturing automobiles, but they have failed to develop a competitive software industry, in spite of huge efforts made by the Japanese government.
Mary Dumont, a Palo Alto attorney representing Californians for Population Stabilization in a lawsuit against Hewlett-Packard's hiring of low-wage Indian engineers, says that when the judge asked about the quality of the imported Indian workers relative to natives from, say nearby UC Berkeley, the Hewlett-Packard representative conceded that the Berkeley graduates were better.
The issues here go directly to the middle class' growing feeling that the American Dream is no longer in reach. How can I implore my computer science students to study hard today, knowing that they too are liable to be discarded a few years from now, like Cindy? Even those natives who do get graduate degrees face the same Ponzi scheme a few years down the road: As soon as the next software technology comes in, they too are liable to be shunted aside in favor of a newer crop, probably foreign nationals. Should I advise my students that they would be better off in another profession, say as immigration lawyers?
In other words, current skills-based immigration policy is not only unjustified on technical grounds, but also it is simply bad social policy. Congress should tighten requirements for skills-based immigrant and work visas, and allow our nation to expoit its cultural comparative advantage in the computer field, in which it has proved to be so successful.
Dr. Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, and is a former software developer in Silicon Valley. A speaker of Chinese, he has been active in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years. His more much detailed report on the topic of immigration and Silicon Valley is accessible on the World Wide Web, at ftp://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/pub/svreport.html