Mar 07, 2013 (04:03 AM EST)
IT Talent Shortage Or Purple Squirrel Hunt?

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There either is or isn't a technical talent shortage in the U.S. To hear corporate leaders tell it, America's woeful inability to educate enough students in science, technology, engineering and math has left U.S. companies with a dangerously shallow talent pool.

Arguably, this shortage is at least partially the result of past outsourcing, which has been discouraging U.S. students from pursuing IT careers.

Among the solutions advocated by the management class is expansion of the H-1B visa program, which aims "to help employers who cannot otherwise obtain needed business skills and abilities from the U.S. workforce by authorizing the temporary employment of qualified individuals who are not otherwise authorized to work in the United States," as the U.S. Department of Labor puts it.

[ Can the two sides ever agree on this issue? Read Immigration Reform: Find The Middle Ground. ]

Tech companies insist they cannot hire the talent they need. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said as much last week in a statement on Code.org. And Laszlo Bock, SVP of people operations at Google, said this in a statement in January: "[A]t a time when the U.S. economy needs it most, our immigration policies are stifling innovation. The 2013 cap for the H-1B visas that allow foreign high skilled talent to work temporarily in the U.S. was exhausted by June 2012, preventing tech companies from recruiting some of the world's brightest minds."

The recently introduced Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 intends to raise the H-1B visa cap, among other immigration law changes.

But a talent shortage might just be another way of describing an unwillingness to pay market rates for talent. As Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School, put it in The Wall Street Journal back in October, 2011, "Some of the complaints about skill shortages boil down to the fact that employers can't get candidates to accept jobs at the wages offered. That's an affordability problem, not a skill shortage."

Although the record high set this week by the Dow Jones Industrial Average suggests a return of economic optimism, the U.S. unemployment rate is still not low enough to prevent jobs seekers in the U.S. -- particularly those trained in technical skills -- from resenting the fact that employers are looking to hire people from outside the country.

Norman Matloff, professor of computer science at the University of California in Davis, contends that foreign IT workers are popular with companies because they are de facto indentured servants. Foreign workers do not have the same rights as U.S. workers: For example, if they're being sponsored for a green card, they cannot quit and seek work at another company without resetting the green card process.

Foreign workers brought to the U.S. under these restrictions are participating in a form of human trafficking. Instead of sexual bondage, it's intellectual restraint.

Keeping workers from accepting better offers elsewhere is hugely important to technology companies, because the departure of key personnel from a project can set the project back months or more.

"If you have this urgent project going on in your company, you don't want an engineer to leave you in the lurch by going to another company," said Matloff in a phone interview. "With an American employee, there's no way to stop that. With a foreign employee, if he or she is sponsored for a green card, he or she is basically stuck."

Shackling technical talent is so important that Adobe Systems, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit and Pixar had agreements for several years not to hire employees away from one another, until the U.S. Department of Justice forced the companies to stop with the threat of an antitrust lawsuit. The department didn't manage, however, to get any of those companies to admit to wrongdoing.

Testifying earlier this week on behalf of IEEE-USA, a group representing more than 200,000 technical professionals and students, Bruce Morrison told a Congressional immigration policy subcommittee that the talent needs of U.S. companies would be better served by deregulating the process by which employers sponsor new hires for permanent residency. This would allow foreign workers to participate in the talent market on a more equitable basis.

"If an employer is willing to pay a substantial fee to sponsor a skilled foreign worker for a green card -- which means he or she can quit if they are underpaid -- that is solid evidence the employer actually needs the worker's skills," he said in prepared remarks. "But if an employer is only willing to pay a fee for a worker who cannot quit without going back to the beginning of the green card process, that indicates the employer is more interested in the indentured character of the visa, than in the worker's skills."

Beyond the objection to treating foreign workers as indentured servants, critics of the H-1B program see it as an enabler of age discrimination.