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As IT presses for more H-1B visas, academics question STEM worker shortage

Kenneth Corbin | March 18, 2014
Amid simmering debate in Washington over immigration reform, scholars challenge the notion that the United States faces a widespread shortage of workers educated in science, technology engineering and math.

The campaign to permit more highly skilled foreign workers to stay in the country has long been a cornerstone of the technology sector's lobbying agenda, which promotes the shortage of workers trained in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as a matter of gospel.

But some experts take issue with the notion of a STEM shortage, arguing that the supply of workers trained in those fields has actually been outpacing demand, and that tech companies claiming otherwise do so in an effort to gain access to more guest workers who, on average, are paid a lower salary than U.S. citizens with comparable skills.

"There's a big disconnect between what you'll hear at least in the public rhetoric about STEM shortages ... with what happens actually out in the real world when you talk to actual engineers," says Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, who spoke at a recent policy forum.

"I think it's naïve not to look at the politics of all of this. The shortage argument has been around and has been used principally to argue for more guest workers," Hira says. "The IT sector has been pushing this for more than two-and-a-half decades."

STEM Shortage, H-1B Debates Remain Unsettled
Until recently, it appeared that tech firms and their trade groups might be headed for a major win after the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration overhaul and leaders in the House signaled that they would take up the issue as well. Momentum in the lower chamber has since faded, however, and the odds of movement on the immigration issue this year get longer as midterm elections approach.

The issue will certainly return — and of the many considerations in play, an expansion of the H-1B visa program for skilled foreign workers is among the least politically contentious.

The data on the question of a STEM shortage is unsettled. Scholarly studies argue both sides of the issue and offered seemingly contradictory statistics to support their case. For instance, Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University, contends that H-1B visa holders account for two-thirds of the entry-level hires in the IT sector each year. Tech companies have been lobbying for an increase in the annual cap for those guest workers, a provision that was included in the Senate bill.

"From the policy end, what is the IT industry asking for now in the new immigration bill?" Salzman says. "They want the ability to hire guest workers for 150 percent of all expected new positions."

On the other hand, Jonathan Rothwell, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, cites data from the Conference Board indicating that around 4.3 million open computing positions are advertised each year - many times more than the number of guest workers allowed in the country on H-1B visas. Putting it plainly, Rothwell says, "There are more job vacancies than there are IT workers."


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