Why Import Engineers?
Study Shows U.S. Has Engineering Surplus; Why the Pressure to Import More?
by Joe Guzzardi

Earlier this week, a live online video chat featured President Obama and Jennifer Weddel, the wife of an unemployed engineer whose husband has been out of a job for three years. Weddel asked the president: “Why does the government continue to extend H-1B visas when there are tons of Americans just like my [engineer] husband with no job?”

Caught off guard, Obama tried to deflect Weddel’s argument by inquiring what type of engineer her husband is. When Weddel replied “semiconductor,” Obama resorted to elusive double talk before promising to review his case further. To add to Obama’s embarrassment, Wedell is unemployed in Texas, a tech industry hub.

The problem that the president unexpectedly faced is that semiconductor engineers are in one of the categories which IT industry executives have been telling Congress can’t be found in the United States. And the White House, apparently without bothering to check the facts, has acted on industry misinformation. From the El Paso border this summer to the United States Capitol in January where he gave the State of the Union address and at every stop in between, Obama has aggressively called for increasing the 65,000 H-1B visas issued annually.

The Weddel-Obama dust up set off a flurry of Internet postings and analysis among organizations that have insisted for years that no shortage of American engineers or any other classification of worker exists. After all, when there are so many million unemployed Americans, how can there be shortages?

Indeed, the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based research organization that favors less immigration, found that 1.8 million Americans under age 66 have engineering degrees but not an engineering job.

The study, “Is President Obama Right about Engineers?” is based on data collected by the Census Bureau from the American Community Survey. Dr. Steven Camarota, its author, found the following: 1) 101,000 U.S. engineers looking for a job can’t find any type of work at all; 2) 244,000 engineers are unemployed and have stopped looking for work and 3) 1.5 million engineers have jobs but don’t work as engineers.

In his numerous supportive speeches about lifting the visa cap, Obama has repeatedly referred to the foreign-born workers he wants to bring to the United States as “highly skilled.” But Dr. Camarota’s research revealed that in 2010 there were 25,000 unemployed Americans with engineering degrees who have a Master’s or Ph.D. degree and another 68,000 with advanced degrees not in the labor force. There were also 489,000 U.S.-born individuals with graduate degrees who were working but not as engineers.

Another important consideration: in the two decades since its inception, is that the H-1B visa has been used for non-engineering fields like teaching, pharmacy and even football coaching as happened a few years ago at Tennessee’s Austin Peay University. No job is safe.

Today’s lesson is that every story has two sides. The administration has listened closely to the business elites who want more visas. Now, the hour has come for the White House to pay equal attention to unemployed Americans’ pleas.

Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. His columns about immigration and other social issues have been syndicated since 1986. Contact him at [email protected] His column is licensed to run on TMV in full.

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  • Jim Satterfield

    This pretty much agrees with a lot of stuff I’ve read. It’s not that we lack people in some of the fields they want to import people for, they just have loopholes to get around the comparable wage parts of the law and it’s easier to pressure H1B holders for longer hours, etc. They almost never have families they want to get home to in the evenings, etc. Employers in these fields constantly whine about not being able to get people with exactly the skills they need but are suddenly willing to hire those who don’t fit those exacting standards if they’re from outside the U.S.

  • ShannonLeee

    H1B holders, like many visa holders, are basically slave labor. They work longer hours for half the cost or they go bye bye. Academia is really bad with this… phd’s with J1 visas are locked into their labs and work 70 hour weeks…every week. I’ve heard a Professor tell a J1 visa holder….

    “Be in the lab on Sunday or I’ll ship you back to China”
    and even worse…
    “I want to see this data showing this result by next week or I’ll ship you back to China.”

    Americans want to have worker rights and all of that jazz, which is bad for the profit line…which is bad for the stock prices.

    So the jobs they simply cannot ship overseas…get shipped in employees from overseas.

    I have a friend with a degree in computer science…he has been looking for a job for about a year now…so much for the “jobs of the future”.

  • Quelcrist Falconer

    Cheap Obedient Labor.

  • EEllis

    It’s kind of funny that some who are so down on the secured border issue are taking the other side here. Sort of like “As long as it’s not my job” type of thing. I guess degreed immigrants cut a little close.

  • STinMN

    Let me start this off by stating that I am a working engineer. I have been for almost 30 years, and hope to continue to until I can retire, whenever that maybe (another 15-20 years hopefully.) The last two companies and my current employer all had some H1B hires in multiple areas. Over these companies I have worked directly with about a dozen H1B engineers, and I am currently working with 1, a software engineer.

    In my experience the H1Bs were paid about the same as other personnel with equivalent experience, and were treated like regular employees with no threats of “work additional hours or we send you home.” They all worked the normal 50-60 hour weeks the non-H1B engineers were routinely required to work, and worked the couple of months of 80-100 hour weeks at crunch time along with the rest of us. About the biggest difference I’ve seen at my present employer is the H1B employees were not asked to travel internationally (we’ve had issues with them getting back into the US) and don’t participate in the monthly Sunday morning leadership meetings or the daily off-shore team meetings even if they are considered to be in leadership positions. I figure my experience with the H1Bs at 3 different companies to be the exception since we hear so many stories about the poor wages and long work days they must put in.

    As to whether we should be using H1B engineers when there are so many engineers unemployed (I personally know 5, with 1 unemployed 3 years) the simple answer is no, but not for the reasons most think. I would like to see these H1b jobs going to US citizens, but realistically few of the companies I have worked for are solely US based, so why should US citizens have preference treatment over non-US?

    No, the H1B program should be terminated because it reduces US competitiveness in a global marketplace. With an H1B we bring in a temporary employee, train them (needs to happen even if they have all the advertised skills, every new employee needs training in the procedures and processes of a specific company) and allow them access to some of the intellectual property of the company, whether it is how something works, or more importantly, how something is designed or how something is made. Seeing this IP is unavoidable if we are to get any useful work from them. Once we release them from the H1B program they go home and apply that knowledge in competition to us. With off-shoring jobs the corporations retain some control of the IP, and with a US citizen the knowledge usually stays in the US. With an H1B it doesn’t.

    Don’t think for a minute that our competitors don’t want this knowledge. One of our H1Bs returned to his homeland after his H1B expired, before he left the US he had multiple job offers from our competitors both within the US, in Europe, and in his native India. He is now the director of an engineering group designing products that directly compete with ours.

    I know my company is re-evaluating the H1B program. The long term loss of using an H1B appears to be far in excess of the short term gain.

  • RP

    There are times when immigrants are needed to fill hard to fill positions.

    Ten years ago during the severe nursing shortage, doctors from Ukraine that could not find work in their country were brought to the US to work as RN’s to fill night and weekend positions. The American RN’s would only work the M-F day shifts and due to the shortage, could pick and choose when to work.

    Today that does not exist for the most part. And when shortages do exist in professions, it is hard to find anyone out of their community as people are underwater on the house mortgages and can not move.

    Chiquita Banana company is moving from Cincinati, Ohio to Charlotte NC. To get their top management to move they are paying moving cost plus any loss on the sale of homes. Think they are doing that for middle management they offer positions to in NC? I doubt it, they will be out of a job or will have to sell and absorb the loss themselves.

  • roro80

    ST — good to hear the perspective of another engineer.

    I have been working in the semiconductor industry (Si Valley, but we work a LOT with companies in Texas) for the last 7 years, and my experience just doesn’t mesh with that of Weddel. My inclination is to think that he’s just not that good at what he does, or at least he is not that good at interviewing. Or, since it is a pretty small world (semi industry, that is), it’s possible he pissed off enough people that the word has gotten out. At least here in the Bay Area, we’ve got an overall unemployment of about 12%, but for engineers it’s about 3%. Granted, that’s way down from a few years ago during the crash, which hit semi really bad, but the cyclical nature of this industry is just a reality of working in this field.

    In my company, all of our H1B visas are for people who already work at OUR company, but are based out of another country. We have our headquarters here in California, but have offices everywhere we have customers — many countries in Asia, Europe, other areas of the US. Often times the reason we have foreign employees come to live a few years in States is to develop better understanding of our customer’s needs and culture, and also to make sure that when that employee goes back to his home country, he (and it’s almost always a “he” 🙁 ) has a stronger understanding of the core engineering process that happens here in the States. I don’t see the same sorts of problems as ST worries about. As ST indicated, though, I can only represent my own experience, and it might not be representative. I do know that reducing the ability of our foriegn workers to come here and work in the States would definitely hurt my company.

    By the way, I would say that the number of people with engineering degrees who are not working as engineers may be somewhat misleading. A lot of engineers leave the field because they don’t like it — whether that’s the super long hours, the extremely fast pace of the work, the pressure, or the cyclical nature of many of the tech industries — it’s definitely not for everyone. Hell, I often think it’s not for me; I dream of a “normal” job on occasion. Of my friends from engineering school, about half have chosen not to work as engineers. It really was their choice to do something else. I also wonder how they gathered that data. I have an engineering title, but not in the field I did my grad work in — I wonder if that would count?

  • roro80

    I’d also like to point add that it usually takes my company a long time to find the right people for engineering job openings. Having an engineering job does not automatically make a person right for every engineering job, of course. Another thing to consider: in order to get an H1B visa, a worker has to already have his or her job lined up.

  • slamfu

    “in 2010 there were 25,000 unemployed Americans with engineering degrees who have a Master’s or Ph.D. degree and another 68,000 with advanced degrees not in the labor force.”

    Ok, lets take a look at those #’s. First off, that’s less than 100,000 people out of a potential workforce of millions. And they aren’t all standing in a line 2 blocks away. What good does the, maybe 1,000 engineers looking for work in San Francisco do me when I’m trying to hire 10 in Kalamazoo MI? As a hiring company, its just plain EASIER to get them from overseas since they are coming here, looking for work, and automatically willing to locate to me. That is far from the only reason, but I assure you its a compelling one. The fact is during this job market that we have less than 100,000 engineers looking for work our of a population of over 300 million says one thing, we have a massive shortage of technical talent in this country. Spread that around the country and you have a real dearth per square mile of engineers.

  • ShannonLeee

    First, EE… actively shipping in work force competition and kicking out people that have been here for 20 years are two different things.

    Second, from my personal experiences…I worked in the lithography side of engineering for a while…I must be living on mars because the last 4 posts don’t match what I have seen and heard.

    And to boot… I have a friend, biochemist, that had a patent stolen by an H1B holder. Guys was there to help design a machine and unknown to my friend, took the specs with him back to China…. 1 year later my friend saw his machine at a convention.

    careful what you ask for…

  • roro80

    Yikes, Shannon, that’s awful. Whether you’re hiring from inside or outside the country, there definitely need to be some thought into the trustworthiness of people any company shares its IP with.

  • STinMN

    Yikes, Shannon, that’s awful. Whether you’re hiring from inside or outside the country, there definitely need to be some thought into the trustworthiness of people any company shares its IP with.

    That issue is inherrent in the H1B program, and since, in most cases, there is no longterm commitment by either party, there is little incentive by the H1B visa holder to respect the IP holder’s rights. Once the H1B has expired they are pretty much out of reach of the company and can do whatever they want. This is unlike a local contracting company that would still need to abide by a confidentiality agree.

    I find it interesting how many former semiconductor engineers (I’m one as well, photoresist processing and cleaning processes) are participating in this conversation. A rather strong statement on how well US companies managed their IP.

  • roro80

    “That issue is inherrent in the H1B program, and since, in most cases, there is no longterm commitment by either party, there is little incentive by the H1B visa holder to respect the IP holder’s rights.”

    It sounds like the companies involved are doing things in a pretty dumb way, if that’s the case. Like I said, my company gives sponsorship of H1B visa employees only for people already employed overseas by our company. Hiring a random, unknown engineer, then showing them your IP, when your company knows that they will be extremely difficult to track down physically or legally at a later date — well, yeah, that sounds like a bad idea.