IMMIGRATION REFORM

Can Zuckerberg Really Not Find Enough Engineers?

Facebook's CEO tells investors the tech industry desperately needs more high-quality engineers--but Facebook has no recruiting problems, thank you very much.
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On yesterday's Facebook earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg repeated a familiar Silicon Valley refrain: talented, U.S.-born tech workers are hard to come by.

Specifically, here's what he said:

Hiring great people--especially engineers--is one of the biggest challenges that any technology company has. We're doing really well against the hiring goals that we have. But I mean there [is] a systemic issue where our country doesn't produce the volume of engineers that the companies would want to hire.

Zuckerberg then goes on to say that despite the hiring challenges, Facebook is exceptionally good at finding senior engineers. He found himself is something of a catch-22: on one hand, Zuck must placate investor worries about Facebook's ability to hire talent; on the other hand, as an influential voice in tech and the founder of a well-financed immigration reform PAC, he needs to keep the drumbeat going on the idea that the U.S. can't produce enough tech workers. 

This thought--that tech companies have a hard time finding technical talent--is echoed by pretty much every other major tech company in the Valley. It's also been the underpinning for several national campaigns targeted at immigration reform that seek to increase the number of guest visas (most notably the H1-B) that would allow highly-skilled foreign tech workers access to American tech firms. The latest immigration reform bill doubles the amount of H1-B visas--a major coup for the industry.

The only problem is that this claim--that the tech industry can't find enough U.S.-born workers--is, at best, an exaggeration. At worst, it's downright bogus.  

I've written about this disconnect before, drawing on research from Norman Matloff, a professor at the University of California, Davis. Matloff published a report back in February 2013 that came to two major, controversial conclusions. First, he found that "on a variety of measures, the former foreign students have talent lesser than, or equal to, their American peers." And second, "skilled-foreign-worker programs are causing an internal brain drain in the United States."

This week, another report surfaced that came to a similiar conclusion after studying job applicants' resumes and openings earlier this year: "There were more than enough potential candidates in the United States"--particularly for high-skilled programming positions. That study, prepared by Bright, a San Francisco-based recruiting firm that uses cloud data to match employers with employees, found that there were "134 percent more candidates nationwide than there were positions requested," specifically for the IT sector. 

As Quentin Hardy at The New York Times pointed out earlier this week:

Many economists take issue with the industry's argument, too. One side points out that wages have not gone up across the board for engineers, suggesting that there is no stark labor shortage. Another counters that unemployment rates in the sector are minuscule and that in any event, H-1B workers represent a tiny fraction of the American work force.

Of course, there are limitations to the Bright study. One economist pointed out to Hardy: 

The case for and against expanding the H1-B visa program should be done on an overall assessment of the impact on the U.S. economy (workers, consumers, investors, students/future workers) and not only on whether there are short-run ‘shortages’ in any specific occupation.

This isn't to say that American tech companies may sometimes need to recruit highly skilled workers from abroad. It's just that the qualifications for what meets "highly skilled" should be defined carefully. Guest visa programs, particularly the H1B, were created to help employers recruit workers with "exceptional skills"--not as a way to find cheap labor from abroad, at the expense of American-born workers.

So the next time Zuck makes this claim, it's worth asking him: Really? 

IMAGE: Associated Press
Last updated: Jul 25, 2013




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