H-1B visas make STEM careers unattractive to American students

H-1B policies aren't giving the U.S. 'the best and the brightest' immigrant engineers and scientists

The idea that H-1B visas tend to reduce the attractiveness of science and technology jobs for U.S. residents got more visibility recently thanks to Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at U.C. Davis. Matloff penned a piece for the financial journal Barron's in which he explained the case for reforming U.S. policies on work visas.

"Contrary to the claims of tech-industry lobbyists, the U.S. isn't generally getting 'the best and the brightest' immigrant engineers and scientists," writes Matloff. The reason, he says, is that 20 years ago, the Immigration Act of 1990 replaced the old work visa, called Aliens of Distinguished Merit and Ability, with the version we have today, called Specialty Occupations and Fashion Models. Effectively, the change flooded the U.S. with foreign tech workers of lower quality than before. Moreover, it also resulted in foreign students of lower quality entering into U.S. doctorial programs, he says.

"The impact of the foreign-student and H-1B programs has been to displace American students from STEM fields. Since the average quality of the foreign students is lower than that of the Americans, the result is a net loss of quality in our STEM workforce," Matloff writes.

To make matters worse, the Senate is currently considering an immigration bill that would grant special green cards to all foreign students earning advanced STEM degrees at U.S. schools, regardless of their quality. "Any foreign student, even with mediocre grades at an undistinguished state college, would quailify," Matloff points out.

If that piece of legislation passes, get ready for even lower salaries for U.S. STEM workers.

Unfortunately, Matloff's Barron's article can only be viewed by Barron's subscribers, but his web page covers many of his arguments.

Discuss this Blog Entry 13

PMoua (not verified)
on Jun 13, 2013

I agree with Professor Matloff, 99%. My family and I emigrated from Laos to the US in the 70's. I was 11 then, I have no knowledge of English. I did not have a choice but to learned the language. It took me a year to began to understand it. I am a quick learner, but it took me another 7 years to fully understand the English Language. In College, I met a whole lot of foreign students from all over the world. Most of them came from rich family, in which they do not have to try very hard, or have the will try harder. About 1% are very good, genuine trying very hard to understand everything they do.. I was at the top of my class in high school but college was totally different..We all graduated, but most of them can not find jobs, they have no work experience or working ethics...not to say that they're lazy or they never had to work for a living before...so that make that much more to find a job. They are also willing to accept the first offer, in many cases, that offer is much lower than the market. Which in turn, make all of us...US STEM value lower. Most of them stay, not for they moneys...most of them wanted to stay because of the freedom to think, express their opinion, hopes and dream to pursuit what ever they wanted...that is the American dream.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 17, 2013

I do not understand you Americans on H1b... You guys say that "free market" is the best but when it comes to recruiting engineers it should not be free markets. Matloff says "Employers accrue Type II wage savings by hiring younger, thus cheaper, H-1Bs in lieu of older, thus more expensive (age 35+) Americans. "
I don't understand why employers need to pay for a higher expensive Americans when the same can be done by a younger cheaper guy? Why is it the mistake of employer not the employee? Why can't come for a lower pay even though he is clearly knows that this job doesn't require high skills?
Are you preaching communism? Are you saying that companies should forgo profits and look at only welfare of American employees? Isn't that communism, the exact opp of what the America country is built on? The exact opp of why America keeps invading countries "to prevent communism and help capitalism prosper?"

As an end-user you buy what is the best for you right? Do you go to Apple and demand you need only American made products even though they are higher cost? You only look at price. So if a company highers American engineers and finally their products are costlier than its competitors, wouldn't they fail?
You guys are a paradox!

ScottP (not verified)
on Jun 20, 2013

Regardless of whether you think it's a good idea to flood the market with H1B visas, it might help to look at engineers not as people but as a service being exchanged for money. It's not much different then from making something, say a machine. Let's use lawn mower. I have a great idea for a lawn mower, but it will take me years to design, build and sell it. Very expensive. But my neighbor can build a similar lawn mower for much less than I ever could. So why should I try to build a lawn mower myself? I will never be able to compete with my neighbor. I won't ever build that lawn mower. It's the very same with becoming an engineer--it takes a lot of effort and hard work to get an engineering degree and to gain good experience. Now if the government allows the engineering market to be flooded with imports, than I will be forced to take much lower wage or not work as an engineer. Why should I bother to get an engineering degree in the first place? I have wasted my time. So forget about the debate whether it's a good idea to import more H1B visas; if I look at what it takes to become an engineer, and the likelihood that I will see a good return on my investment IF I KNOW THE GOVERNMENT WILL FLOOD MY MARKET, then I won't waste my time and money becoming an engineer; I have little to gain and much to lose.

ferd (not verified)
on Jun 18, 2013

Anonymous, the key problem with your argument is your assumption "when the same can be done by a younger cheaper guy". In many cases these younger cheaper guys are replacing older experienced guys, and they are not able to perform nearly as well or as efficiently. But non-technical management feels that “a warm body is sufficient” and doesn’t worry about consequences.
If one is considered “too old” for engineering at 35 it’s no wonder that there’s a “STEM shortage”. Fifteen years is too short for a career. Potential STEM students are not dumb. They see what is happening to their older peers and realize that it’s not the place to go.

ME guy (not verified)
on Jun 20, 2013

This is why my son who was accepted to the engineering program at Cal Poly turned it down to go with a business major at an equivalent university for business. I am a 25-year veteran engineer and I completely understand his decision.

mm (not verified)
on Jun 20, 2013

While I want the best and brightest here in the US, I also want STEM jobs to stay in the US. The brutal reality is that any company large enough to hire a significant number of H-1B visa holders can set up a remote design center in a foreign country or subcontract the job to an off-shore company. Overall, as a country, economy, etc. we are better off hiring H-1B visa holders in the US (who then pay US taxes and spend the bulk of their paycheck in the US) than farming the project off to an off-shore design center or subcontractor. If the job is in the US, it has a better chance of staying in the US than if it gets pushed off-shore.
Unfortunately, technology and technology skills are transferable and transitory - e.g., being a programming guru in Fortran won't get you very far today, you need to know C, C++, Java, etc. If you stay on top of technology and keep your skills fresh, you will be compensated well and you will have ample opportunities available to you. If you let your skills become stale (very easy to do when you are trying to stay on top of getting your day to day job done), then your compensation will stall and your opportunities will be limited. The challenge, once you have been working in a field for 10, 15, 20 years, is to make sure you stay on top of where the technology in your field is going and be willing to learn new things and re-invent yourself as needed.
From everything I see and hear, if you pursue the correct STEM field, you will have no problems getting a job that puts you near the top of the entry level college graduate pay scale; however, to be successful in your career after you get that first job, you really have to enjoy and be inspired by what you are doing.

experience_counts (not verified)
on Jun 21, 2013

One group of impacts of the practice of "hire them young" is that the current project may well proceed on-time and under budget. However, when it come time to "upgrade" and the initial engineers are gone, then the problems come roaring home. No one remembers what was done in the most current iteration, let alone three generations back. Geometry problems in a single CAD model are hard to fix. Another aspect of getting rid of experience comes when the CAD systems gets updated. In most cases, the experienced staff can recreate the current CAD database seamlessly. The proof is a negative proof, as this topic is rarely addressed in the trade press as an issue, but, "Just you wait 'enry 'iggins." When new staffers try to recreate old geometry, excuse me, ALL THE OLD GEOMETRY, all of the old dependencies and inter-dependencies that were handled seamlessly will become problematic. An experienced staff knows how to create geometry that can be manufactured, modified to serve as an analysis model, and shown in advertising. Good luck.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 21, 2013

I don't think US students give H1-B visas any thought whatsoever. Those who want to pursue STEM careers do so. The reason more US students don't pursue advanced degrees in STEM is they have the opportunity for jobs that provide a comfortable living without the extra effort of the advanced degree.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 24, 2013

I totally disagree with this article and what he is stating. What is hurting STEM programs in the United States is that the average young person doesn't want to work more then 40 hours a week and some of them want to do only the minimum. Most of the H1-B visa holders that I have met are very intelligant and hard working. Also, a lot of people instead of going into the harder college fields go into business since they can usually make more money quicker depending on their degree. Finally, I have known engineers who have dropped out of engineering because of the working hours, they were manufacturing engineers on call 24/7.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jun 24, 2013

A big assumption on most of the US residents here is that H1B STEM workers bring the wages down. I beg to differ. My salary has always been 10-15% higher than the market average for that job title and region. Contrary to popular belief, H1B STEM workers want the same competitive salaries that US residents are getting and we are smart enough to negotiate for and get them too. We would like to be able to afford the same material luxuries as every US resident and citizen, and we do. I have purchased a house, two brand new cars and love travelling within the USA. I spend all my money here in the USA.
My american colleagues often come to me for advice on salary negotiation, because I am damn good at making a prospective employer understand what value I can add to their organization.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 8, 2013

I've worked with a lot of so-called experienced IT workers fr India only to find out that none of them had the 8-10 yrs exp they claimed. Fact was, I ended up training them. I followed several India workers to understand where they got their exp and boy was I shocked. Most, if not all, were brought in thru consulting companies who taught them knowledge to qualify n past interviews. It was a PM, BA, QA mill turning fresh grads into so called exp IT workers and replacing americans from high paying jobs. Whats worse is there is alot of them coming in thru H1b n L1 visa. Look at your IT depts and you'll notice alot of India workers. Funny thing is, has anyone ever asked these workers how old they are because if they did have the exp, then how does a 24yr old just graduated fr college have 10yrs of exp working in IT, and theres alot of them. Lying about their exp seems to be working and more n more americans are getting displaced by foreign workers. How can an exp american compete with someone who has over 8yrs of fake experience.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jul 26, 2013

How is it logical to correlate nationality to someones skills? I am from India. I graduated from a reputed school here in the US with a good GPA. I am currently on my H1B visa. Why would you assume that I am less skilled than an American engineer. I was admitted to the reputed school based on my good GRE score and other credentials. I worked hard to earn a good GPA. Recently I took the FE exam and scored a pretty good grade. If I am less skilled than a average American Engineer, How did I get admitted into a top school? How did I land multiple job offers out of grad school? Not all H1B workers are low quality workers with low quality skills.

Sansda Mark (not verified)
on Jan 10, 2014

H-1B visa US for the international students is useful for both the students and the recruiting companies of these students.

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