Reprinted from the San Diego Union-Tribune, with permission by Bob Witty, editor, Copley News Service.

Some can't find work despite computer skills Yet industry says it must hire foreigners


March 7, 1998

Computer engineering grad Bard-Alan Finlan is unemployed.

WASHINGTON -- Bard-Alan Finlan, a 1992 UCSD graduate in computer engineering, needs a job. He has sent out 150 resumes, attended job fairs and checked out many companies' Internet sites.

But he's had only one interview in a year and a half.

And still no job.

Alan Ezer of Queens, New York, despite 10 years of computer programming experience, remains unemployed after sending off 150 resumes during the past two years. He even created an entertaining Web site to show off his ability with Java, a cutting-edge programming skill in today's market.

Yet, he, too, has had only one interview.

And still no job.

"President Clinton and Vice President (Al) Gore keep talking about the 21st century," he said. "If people who understand computer technology and can write programs can't get a job in the 21st century, then who can?"

Finlan, Ezer and others like them express dismay when they hear high-technology companies complain that there aren't enough skilled Americans to fill the expanding number of high-tech jobs.

Today, many of the firms, including San Diego's Qualcomm, are citing an urgent shortage of high-tech workers as a reason for the federal government to let them increase the number of foreign "guest workers."

They have recruited on campus, set up employment Web sites and held job fairs galore. But still they can't find skilled workers, they say.

So they are pushing legislation introduced in the Senate yesterday that would loosen immigration laws and give access to more foreign workers. A similar bill will be proposed in the House. With strong support from the high-tech companies, the legislation appears headed for quick passage this year.

Surprisingly robust job growth in February renewed concerns the United States is running short of skilled workers. The nation's unemployment rate last month fell to a 24-year low of 4.6 percent.

"These are good times for America," President Clinton said in a Rose Garden appearance.

But he took pains to point out administration initiatives to supply more skilled technical workers to American companies, including Commerce Department promotional efforts and Labor Department job training grants.

"There are hundreds of thousands of vacancies out there in America right now," Clinton said. "The key to expanding opportunity is education and training."

Companies such as Qualcomm, Intel and Microsoft see the immigration bill as crucial to their growth and competitiveness. Others question whether there really is a critical shortage of engineers and programmers. Companies aren't looking for the best and brightest, critics say, but for the cheapest and most pliable.

"It's pure intellectual dishonesty," said Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California Davis, contending that many companies hire only 2 percent of their applicants.

Companies are being too selective, he added. They get tens of thousands of applications a year and reject most without interviews.

The reason, Matloff says, is money.

"They want the new graduates or foreign nationals, who they perceive as cheaper people," he said. Other employers believe they need to hire people with a particular hot skill of the moment rather than taking the time to train workers. Matloff contends the training can be done quickly in most cases.

Finlan and Ezer are both in their 40s.

Finlan, father of two and a resident of San Marcos, says he has applied to Qualcomm four times without any response. His 1992 undergraduate degree in computer engineering from the University of California San Diego has been little help.

The UCSD engineering program is considered one of the better ones in the country. Last month, Irwin M. Jacobs, Qualcomm's founder and CEO, and his wife, Joan, announced a $15 million gift to the school of engineering, which now carries their names.

No reply

Finlan, a graduate of the program, can't get a reply from Qualcomm.

Dan Sullivan, head of human resources for Qualcomm, said the company is very selective. It is only interested in the cream of the crop, he said.

Last year, Qualcomm hired 1,000 engineers out of 22,000 resumes received from engineers and programmers, about 4.5 percent.

Qualcomm officials say theirs is a highly specialized firm working to expand the frontiers of communications technology through a great commitment to research and development. They can hire only the very best and brightest, they say.

Many of the 96 percent of applicants Qualcomm passed over might find jobs at other high-tech firms or even some of the medium-and low-tech firms that need engineering and programming support, Sullivan said.

But not at Qualcomm.

"There's a question as to what extent we can lower our standards and still stay competitive," he said. "We just can't put average people on the playing field."

Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee and author of the bill expanding the guest worker program, said the need for foreign high-tech workers is reflected in falling enrollments in academic computer engineering programs across the country.

Echoing an argument of the companies, he cited a 42 percent drop in the number of bachelors' degrees awarded in computer science between 1986 and 1995.

But he did not mention a dramatic rebound in enrollments in recent years. Last year alone, enrollments jumped 40 percent nationwide, according to the Computing Research Association.

At UCSD, enrollments in computer sciences have risen 92 percent in the past five years. In computer engineering, the increase has been 50 percent.

While that will not eliminate any immediate shortage, it means more engineers and programmers are in the pipeline. However, Abraham's bill would raise the number of guest worker visas permitted each year from 65,000 to 90,000 this year and 115,000 in subsequent years.

The visas may be temporary -- they allow people to work in the country for up to six years -- but the annual increases have no cutoff date.

Critics of Abraham's bill say computer science enrollments didn't drop during the late 1980s and early 1990s because of a lack of interest on the part of students. They say enrollments dropped because of a collapse in the job market caused by decreases in the military budget, industrial downsizing and a sharp increase in the number of lower-paid skilled foreigners allowed into the country under an expanded 1990 immigration law.

High-tech salaries

If there is a shortage of high-tech workers, it isn't reflected generally in the salaries being offered by employers, said Robert L. Lerman, director of human resources policy at the Urban Institute, a think tank in Washington.

An urgent shortage of skilled workers should lead to a sharp increase in salaries, Lerman said. But salaries for computer scientists have risen at about the same rate as those for other professionals in recent years, he said.

Qualcomm's Sullivan said starting salaries for new graduates hired by his company have risen, roughly speaking, from about $35,000 to about $42,000 in the past five years. That would be an average annual increase of about 4 percent, about in line with most professions during that period.

For now, the debate generates more questions than answers in an industry that is increasingly crucial to U.S. economic growth.

The industry's claim that it urgently needs more workers can't be taken lightly. But neither can its proposed solution: recruiting more foreign workers.

"The computer industry is the cutting-edge industry of this country," said Roy Beck, an author who has chronicled the wide-ranging repercussions when an industry such as meatpacking turns to foreign workers.

He doesn't see high-tech jobs declining in value as sharply as meatpacking has, but he worries that they could go from being stellar middle-class jobs to being modest ones.

"The high-tech jobs are good and could get better," he said. "These are the kinds of jobs the people of San Diego want for their own children."

But it's very tempting for employers to hire foreigners, Beck said.

"The money is not the driving factor," he said. "It's just that it's so much easier for them to go to a country with a billion people, like India, and pick up the willing programmers with this skill or that skill."

Labor contractors, like the ones who provide workers for growers, chicken-processing plants and high-tech firms, are more active abroad than here, he said.

"It's easier for them to go to India than it is to go to Indiana," Beck added.

Erik Bruvold, executive director of the San Diego Council of the American Electronics Association, loves to tell reporters to quote him as saying that if there are any unemployed engineers out there, they should send him their resumes. Plenty of jobs, he said.

Finlan, the unemployed UCSD engineering graduate, faxed Bruvold his resume this week.

Bruvold referred him to a Web site created by a consortium of San Diego engineering firms and an upcoming job fair. Finlan checked the Web site and plans to apply for some of the listed jobs. But he's not optimistic, because he has already sent his resume to many of the companies on the site.

As for the job fair, he says: been there, done that.

"You take a pile of 50 resumes and give them out to the same companies you gave them out to six months earlier at the last fair," he said. "They have someone sitting behind a desk smiling at you. They give you a nice plastic pen and a balloon and you move on to the next desk."

But still no job.