Scientists & Engineers: Will Work 4 Food?

Right-wing opponents of immigration and of what they called “amnesty” for illegals weren’t the only ones celebrating last month’s defeat of the White House-backed immigration bill.

In 2002 I was naïve enough to write a column channeling the angst of technology CEOs about the “shortage” of scientists and engineers (a theme that has been sounded since the 1980s, when the National Science Foundation projected a shortfall of about 675,000 over the following two decades, something that never materialized, as discussed in a paper by MIT mathematician Eric Weinstein). Scores of engineers, in particular, wrote to me. In addition to pointing out my basic stupidity (well, credulity), they explained that the career prospects of an engineer these days are so bleak they steer their children away from the field. Most of all, they argued that the shortage is and was a myth.

No wonder, then, that engineers are cheering the defeat of the immigration bill, which would have increased the number of high-tech employees that companies could bring in on temporary H-1B visas from the current 65,000 per year to 115,000 and eventually to as many as 180,000.

The economic argument for this rests on basic free market ideology, as editorials in The Wall Street Journal espoused more than a decade ago:

Feb. 1, 1990: “The U.S. has the best university system in the world, yet about half of our technical graduate school slots are filled by foreigners. As long as we don’t train enough scientists, engineers or software designers ourselves, immigration is a saving grace. ... Come to think of it, with jobs available why have a quota at all? ... Our view is, borders should be open.”

March 16, 1990: “As long as the teachers’ unions prevent education reform, the U.S. needs to import scientists and engineers. ... Whatever happened to competitiveness?”

(The labor market for engineers crashed in the 1990s, but no matter.)

The argument against increasing the number of foreign engineers and scientists allowed to work here comes down to the bitter experience of American scientists and engineers who see their jobs going to lower-paid H-1Bs. One H-1B who is suing over the long wait for a green card was paid $40,000; according to government data, that put her in the bottom quartile for this occupation (land planner). Even when H-1Bs do return to their native country (often India) once the visa expires, they are sometimes used to lay the groundwork for outsourcing. That is, they learn the job here, then go home and lead the effort to do the work overseas.

Engineer Sam Florman eloquently captures the angst of the profession in a recent paper. He starts from the premise that “engineers have been good for America: diligent creators of comfort and wealth” and “America has been good to its engineers: rewarding their efforts, if not with riches or fame, at least with plentiful employment opportunities.” That relationship, he laments, is now fraying badly: “With the coming of globalization, the climate for American engineers has turned ominously inhospitable. Specifically, the outsourcing of technological work requires American engineers to compete with skilled professionals abroad whose salaries are very low. At the same time, Congress has attracted thousands of foreign technical workers to the U.S. by authorizing a special new visa category (H-1B). . . . To rub salt in the wounds, at the very moment that American engineers are faced with multitudes of new competitors worldwide, an energetic campaign is under way to recruit more young Americans to study engineering.” Florman ends with what he calls an “appalling thought”: that the interests of U.S. engineers “have come into conflict with those of the nation as a whole.”

That clash is spilling into other fields of science. With the budget cuts at the National Institutes of Health, labs from Harvard to the University of California plus many top biomedical institutions in between are having to lay off technicians as well as post-doctoral fellows. Even full professors with stellar track records are struggling. Since their salary comes out of their grant (unbeknownst to most civilians, few profs at medical schools draw a salary from the institution; we, the taxpayers, cover it) if they are unable to renew a grant they are essentially without gainful employment.

Juxtaposed against the constant calls for more young people to enter science and engineering, this is an odd situation indeed.