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Topic: [ME] Questioning the Shortage of Comp. Progrmers.
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 14,475
Registered: 12/3/04
[ME] Questioning the Shortage of Comp. Progrmers.
Posted: Oct 5, 2000 10:54 AM
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From The New York Times on the Web, Wednesday, September 6, 2000

Abstract: To alleviate apparent shortages of computer programmers,
President Clinton and Congress have agreed to raise a quota on
H-1B's, the temporary visas for skilled foreigners. The annual limit
will go to 200,000 next year, up from 65,000 only three years ago.
Questioning the Labor Shortage

By Richard Rothstein

To alleviate apparent shortages of computer programmers, President
Clinton and Congress have agreed to raise a quota on H-1B's, the
temporary visas for skilled foreigners. The annual limit will go to
200,000 next year, up from 65,000 only three years ago.

The imported workers, most of whom come from India, are said to be
needed because American schools do not graduate enough young people
with science and math skills. Microsoft's chairman, William H. Gates,
and Intel's chairman, Andrew S. Grove, told Congress in June that
more visas were only a stopgap until education improved.

But the crisis is a mirage. High-tech companies portray a shortage,
yet it is our memories that are short: only yesterday there was a
glut of science and math graduates.

The computer industry took advantage of that glut by reducing wages.
This discouraged youths from entering the field, creating the
temporary shortages of today. Now, taking advantage of a public
preconception that school failures have created the problem, industry
finds a ready audience for its demands to import workers.

This newspaper covered the earlier surplus extensively. In 1992, it
reported that 1 in 5 college graduates had a job not requiring a
college degree. A 1995 article headlined "Supply Exceeds Demand for
Ph.D.'s in Many Science Fields" cited nationwide unemployment of
engineers, mathematicians and scientists. "Overproduction of Ph.D.
degrees," it noted, "seems to be highest in computer science."

Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer who served as vice chairman of
the Commission on Immigration Reform, said in 1996 that there was "an
employer's market" for technology workers, partly because of
post-cold- war downsizing in aerospace.

In fields with real labor scarcity, wages rise. Yet despite accounts
of dot-com entrepreneurs' becoming millionaires, trends in computer
technology pay do not confirm a need to import legions of programmers.

Salary offers to new college graduates in computer science averaged
$39,000 in 1986 and had declined by 1994 to $33,000 (in constant
dollars). The trend reversed only in the late 1990's.

The West Coast median salary for experienced software engineers was
$71,100 in 1999, up only 10 percent (in constant dollars) from 1990.
This pay growth of about 1 percent a year suggests no labor shortage.

Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of
California, contends that high-tech companies create artificial
shortages by refusing to hire experienced programmers. Many with
technology degrees no longer work in the field. By age 50, fewer than
half are still in the industry. Luring them back requires higher pay.

Industry spokesmen say older programmers with outdated skills would
take too long to retrain. But Dr. Matloff counters by saying that
when they urge more H-1B visas, lobbyists demonstrate a shortage by
pointing to vacancies lasting many months. Companies could train
older programmers in less time than it takes to process visas for
cheaper foreign workers.

Dr. Matloff says that in addition to the pay issue, the industry
rejects older workers because they will not work the long hours
typical at Silicon Valley companies with youthful "singles" styles.
Imported labor, he argues, is only a way to avoid offering better
conditions to experienced programmers. H-1B workers, in contrast,
cannot demand higher pay: visas are revoked if workers leave their
sponsoring companies.

As for young computer workers, the labor market has recently
tightened, with rising wages, because college students saw earlier
wage declines and stopped majoring in math and science. In 1996,
American colleges awarded 25,000 bachelor's degrees in computer
science, down from 42,000 in 1985.

The reason is not that students suddenly lacked preparation. On the
contrary, high school course-taking in math and science, including
advanced placement, had climbed. Further, math scores have risen;
last year 24 percent of seniors who took the SAT scored over 600 in
math. But only 6 percent planned to major in computer science, and
many of these cannot get into college programs.

The reason: colleges themselves have not yet adjusted to new demand.
In some places, computer science courses are so oversubscribed that
students must get on waiting lists as high school juniors.

With a time lag between student choice of majors and later job
quests, high schools and colleges cannot address short-term supply
and demand shifts for particular professions. Such shortages can be
erased only by raising wages to attract those with needed skills who
are now working in other fields - or by importing low-paid workers.

For the longer term, rising wages can guide counselors to encourage
well-prepared students to major in computer science and engineering,
and colleges will adjust to rising demand. But more H-1B immigrants
can have a perverse effect, as their lower pay signals young people
to avoid this field in the future, keeping the domestic supply
artificially low.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244
E-mail: jbecker@siu.edu

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