The Tech Worker Shortage Doesn't Really Exist

The Tech Worker Shortage Doesn't Really Exist
Tech companies are pleading for more visas to address a problem scholars say they made up (Photograph by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
Photograph by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Along with temporary deportation relief for millions, President Obama’s executive action will increase the number of U.S. college graduates from abroad who can temporarily be hired by U.S. corporations. That hasn’t satisfied tech companies and trade groups, which contend more green cards or guest worker visas are needed to keep tech industries growing because of a shortage of qualified American workers. But scholars say there’s a problem with that argument: The tech worker shortage doesn’t actually exist.

“There’s no evidence of any way, shape, or form that there’s a shortage in the conventional sense,” says Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University. “They may not be able to find them at the price they want. But I’m not sure that qualifies as a shortage, any more than my not being able to find a half-priced TV.”

For a real-life example of an actual worker shortage, Salzman points to the case of petroleum engineers, where the supply of workers has failed to keep up with the growth in oil exploration. The result, says Salzman, was just what economists would have predicted: Employers started offering more money, more people started becoming petroleum engineers, and the shortage was solved. In contrast, Salzman concluded in a paper released last year by the liberal Economic Policy Institute, real IT wages are about the same as they were in 1999. Further, he and his co-authors found, only half of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) college graduates each year get hired into STEM jobs. “We don’t dispute the fact at all that Facebook and Microsoft would like to have more, cheaper workers,” says Salzman’s co-author Daniel Kuehn, now a research associate at the Urban Institute. “But that doesn’t constitute a shortage.”

The real issue, say Salzman and others, is the industry’s desire for lower-wage, more-exploitable guest workers, not a lack of available American staff. “It seems pretty clear that the industry just wants lower-cost labor,” Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote in an e-mail. A 2011 review by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the H-1B visa program, which is what industry groups are lobbying to expand, had “fragmented and restricted” oversight that weakened its ostensible labor standards. “Many in the tech industry are using it for cheaper, indentured labor,” says Rochester Institute of Technology public policy associate professor Ron Hira, an EPI research associate and co-author of the book Outsourcing America.

Asked what evidence existed of a labor shortage, a spokesperson for Facebook e-mailed a one-sentence statement: “We look forward to hearing more specifics about the President’s plan and how it will impact the skills gap that threatens the competitiveness of the tech sector.”

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