Is There an "Alarming" Shortage of IT Workers?
by Bryan Pfaffenberger <email@example.com>
The numbers are funny, but there's no mystery about what's happening to
programming as a profession.
Ever been caught in the middle of an argument between a couple going
through a particularly nasty divorce? They use all sorts of lofty
rhetoric--"the children's best interests" and so on--but they exaggerate to
make their points. What's worse, they're hiding their underlying
motives--which, once you figure them out, turn out to be nothing short of
disgusting. Then they start throwing plates at each other.
That's the way I feel after picking my way through the debate concerning
the "IT worker shortage" and the U.S. H1-B temporary worker program, which
enables foreign IT professionals to work in the U.S. on temporary visas.
Who's arguing? On one side, you've got the commercial software industry.
This industry wants more H1-B workers, and it has the numbers to prove
there's a need--or so it says. But the numbers are funny, as you'll see,
and it's clear that the industry's motivations aren't altogether
altruistic: H1-B workers accept lower wages, and the industry's trade
journals have expressly advocated further increases in H1-B caps as a great
way to keep labor costs down. On the other side, you've got a loose
coalition of engineering professional organizations, labor unions, and
anti-immigration organizations, some of which are hoping to use this issue
to inflame public sentiment in favor of a broader, anti-immigration agenda.
Let's get one point straight from the onset. On both sides of this debate,
you'll find well-meaning people who don't have ugly, ulterior motives. On
the fringes, though, you'll find some less-than-well-intentioned players,
and they'd just love to manipulate the debate to serve their agendas.
There's only one way to pick your way through a debate as politically and
emotionally volatile as this one: very, very carefully. You can't really
believe the claims made by either side, because you can't be quite sure
where they're coming from. But pick our way through this we must, and
here's why: Elections are coming up. It's the political equivalent of the
mating season, when wealthy donors and politicians have so much to talk
about. And they're talking big numbers. U.S. Senator Phil Gramm recently
proposed lifting the cap on H1-B workers to 200,000 annually, while
presidential candidate John McCain proposes to blow the cap away by
enabling the U.S. Secretary of Labor to "adjust" H1-B limits to cope with
You'd better pay attention--your career may be at stake.
Is there really an "alarming shortage" of IT workers?
In 1997, the commercial software industry's mouthpiece, the Information
Technology Association of America (ITAA), mounted a highly successful
public relations campaign proclaiming an "alarming" shortage of IT workers.
The campaign was led by the ITAA's new president, Harris Miller.
Who's Miller? Now, you'd think the ITAA would be led by somebody with
lengthy IT experience. Not so. According to Miller's chief adversary,
University of California professor Norman Matloff, Miller is a former
immigration industry lobbyist. Prior to heading up the ITAA, Matloff
claims, Miller was a lobbyist for the National Council of Agricultural
Employers (NCAE). This organization reportedly backed a controversial visa
program for farm workers. Here's the formula: Industry associations flood
the media with reports of acute labor shortages. The public gets scared
that they won't get their zucchinis and cantaloupes. Worker advocates argue
that no shortage exists, but they're ignored--as is the U.S. government
study denying the existence of an acute labor shortage. So the legislation
gets passed. Farm worker wages continue their downward spiral, amid charges
of inhumane conditions for guest workers.
If Matloff's account of Miller's background is accurate, you can see why
the ITAA hired Miller. I suspect the organization was thinking, "Hell, it
worked for the farm industry--why not for us?" The proof's in the
pudding--or poison, if you prefer: the ITAA's H1-B campaign was a virtual
carbon copy of the farm worker effort, and it worked just as well.
Basing its projections on ITAA-sponsored studies, the ITAA claimed nearly
350,000 IT jobs were currently unfilled, and the industry would need 95,000
additional IT workers annually. At the same time, the organization claimed,
colleges and universities weren't supplying enough computer science
graduates to fill the need. The shortfall, rising to 1.3 million workers by
2005, could cost the U.S. economy billions in lost revenue, the ITAA
warned--and that would amount to a national catastrophe: America would lose
its world leadership in computer technology.
Subsequently, the ITAA successfully lobbied Congress to raise the cap on
H1-B workers. In compromise legislation worked out in 1998, 115,000 H1-B
visas will be granted in 1999 and 2000, with the number declining to the
previously mandated level of 65,000 in 2002.
Although acute shortages of computer programmers in certain fields and
areas undoubtedly exist, there's only one way to sum up the ITAA's
statistics: they're funny numbers. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO)
assailed the flawed methodology of the studies underlying the ITAA's
claims. (Want an example? A job currently performed by one of the more than
250,000 independent IT contractors in the U.S. was counted as "unfilled".)
Although more IT jobs would surely become available in the coming years,
the GAO concluded, there was no credible evidence of an alarming, overall
shortfall of qualified applicants. The ITAA's claims were similarly
rejected by independent experts and reputable engineering organizations
(including the IEEE). (The ITAA's president, Harris Miller, brushed off
these criticisms as "nitpicking", and characterized the organization's
critics as "members of the flat-earth society".)
So where's the truth? There's a growing market for IT workers and solid
evidence of severe shortages in certain hot areas, such as Web programming.
But there's no credible evidence that such shortages are sufficiently
severe enough to warrant a massive expansion of the H1-B visa program.
There is credible evidence that the information technology industry views
the H1-B visa program as an excellent mechanism for holding down wages.
Although the H1-B program requires that foreign workers receive a salary in
line with "prevailing wages", this requirement is phrased in such general
terms that, in practice, an H1-B worker winds up getting paid up to 30
percent less than a U.S. worker with similar skills. A July 1998 editorial
in the leading industry trade journal, Red Herring, conceded that the
industry's leading motive in seeking higher H1-B caps was to keep labor
costs down at the expense of older U.S. workers. Companies have a
"fiduciary responsibility" to keep labor costs down, the editorial noted,
and tacitly endorsed the exaggeration of quantitative evidence if such
evidence could produce the desired policy change. Of course, the ITAA hotly
denies that the organization pursues higher H1-B caps with the intent of
keeping programmers' wages down, and Miller--using his characteristic ad
hominem rhetoric--calls the organization's critics a bunch of nutty
If you think the ITAA's lobbying campaign wasn't at least partly motivated
by labor cost concerns, I've got a very nice bridge I'd love to sell you.
To be sure, the ITAA says its long-range goal is to improve the supply of
skilled American workers and to reach out especially to minorities and
women--but that's all for the future, if you read the fine print. (Remember
what I said about the divorcing couple's high-minded rhetoric?) For now,
what's needed is a major expansion of the H1-B program, claims the
ITAA--the social justice part comes later. Maybe.
Out With the Old, In With the Young
On the other side, you'll find a variety of individuals and groups lined up
against H1-B, including engineering professional societies such as the
IEEE. They endorse this column's view, namely that the ITAA exaggerated the
IT worker shortage in an effort to manipulate public policy, a campaign
that amounts in effect to a public welfare program for the IT industry.
This last point is worth bearing in mind if you're one of those people who
say, "If H1-B workers will work for 30 percent less, then that's the true
value of IT labor, and programmers shouldn't complain." That's emphatically
untrue in a situation where an industry organization can persuade the
government to adjust the flow of immigration to its liking in order to
moderate wage pressures.
But H1-B's critics go further. At the core of the industry's H1-B campaign,
they allege, is an all-out war on older workers. There's no shortage of IT
workers, contends Norman Matloff, a professor at the University of
California, Davis. There's a shortage of skilled, unmarried, youthful
workers who are willing to work 80-hour weeks.
Is age discrimination rampant in the software industry? Once again, the
numbers are questionable. Matloff cites a figure claiming a 17 percent
unemployment rate for IT workers over 50 years old, but these numbers
conflict with other studies that show unemployment rates for older computer
scientists to be in line with overall U.S. workforce figures. Matloff also
cites a 1993 study showing that after 20 years, fewer than 20 percent of
computer science graduates were still working in their profession. Industry
apologists contend that older IT workers move into management, but the 20
percent figure is much lower than comparable engineering disciplines. In
civil engineering, for example, 52 percent are still working in their field
20 years after graduation. Still, Matloff concedes we just don't know what
happens to the 80 percent who no longer work as programmers twenty years
after receiving their degrees--there simply isn't enough data. ITAA vice
president Susan Marshall scoffs at Matloff's claims; she told a reporter,
"If older workers aren't being asked to participate, I don't know of it."
She also notes that there hasn't yet been a single successful age
discrimination lawsuit brought against the software industry.
The numbers alleging rampant age discrimination are questionable--but I
wouldn't call them funny. There's a great deal of evidence of widespread
pressure against older workers. In a recent IEEE survey, for instance,
nearly 20 percent of the organization's membership stated they had
personally suffered age discrimination. Layoffs are rampant in the
industry; in one case, an industry spokesman was testifying in Congress in
support of increasing the cap on H1-B visas at the same time his company
let go several hundred older workers. Anecdotal evidence abounds; older
programmers working at Radio Shack for a third of their former pay, or even
behind the counter at McDonald's. The ITAA's rhetoric, disingenuous as
ever, itself implies that there's something to Matloff's charges; age
discrimination is very difficult to prove, and it's virtually impossible to
prove that someone wasn't hired because of his or her age. The ITAA's
Marshall, for example, contends that all those missing older programmers
became senior managers--a statement so obviously absurd that it requires no
further comment. You can't believe anything this organization says--and in
fact, you may be on the right track if you believe exactly the opposite.
So where's the truth? The evidence suggests that age discrimination is
indeed widespread in the software industry, but I wouldn't call it a plot
against older workers. As Matloff himself points out, companies have a
variety of reasons for not hiring older workers, including a desire to
avoid retraining costs, a conviction that older workers can't learn new
skills quickly enough, and the discomfort involved when a 23-year-old
supervisor interviews a 50-year-old applicant--something I've experienced
What's crystal-clear is that a variety of anti-immigration organizations
are using the H1-B worker to inflame public sentiment against immigration
of any sort. Fight the H1-B program, they say, and preserve jobs for
Americans. Conservative presidential aspirant Pat Buchanan sees the H1-B
battle as the leading edge in opening a wider public debate concerning
immigration policy. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)
draws on H1-B animus to promote its campaign for significant reductions in
all forms of immigration; Negative Population Growth (NPG) also draws on
the H1-B debate, but calls for the elimination of all forms of immigration.
Defending the Programming Profession
Still with me? We've picked our way through the evidence, and the picture
seems reasonably clear: the ITAA did indeed exaggerate the scope of the
worker shortage. Contra ITAA President Miller, you don't have to be a
nutcase to see an ulterior motive in the ITAA's lobbying and publicity
efforts. All it takes is a good dose of judicious cynicism--and if you
don't feel at least partly cynical about Washington, get counseling. To be
sure, IT workers are indeed scarce in some fields, but there's also ample
evidence of rampant age discrimination against older IT workers.
But I part company with the anti-immigration groups who believe that the
industry's target is the "American worker". The real victim of H1-B and
rampant age discrimination is the very notion of computer programming as a
profession--and paradoxically, the solution lies partly in not only
allowing foreigner IT professionals to immigrate to the U.S., but to
receive a green card--the first step to full U.S. citizenship.
Now, before you start throwing plates at me, let me explain.
Historically, professions have needed strong professional organizations to
maintain good working conditions, high salaries, and the public's trust.
Professional societies ensure that workers in their field are properly
educated, and what's more, that they hold the public's safety and welfare
as their highest value--even if it means conflict with employers.
But computer-related professional organizations are in big-time trouble.
Memberships are declining dramatically. The Data Processing Management
Association (DPMA), for example, has lost more than a third of its
mid-1980s membership; some IT-related professional societies may well fold
up shop in the coming years.
The decline is partly attributable to a disconnect between older,
academically oriented organizations and new IT skills, but the real culprit
is the destruction of stable IT career paths. A decade ago, a computer
science graduate could reasonably hope to land a job and remain with a firm
for years, moving up the ladder to progressively higher responsibilities.
In part because of H1-B and rampant age discrimination, that's no longer
Here's the best reason to oppose H1-B: It's undermining the profession--and
what's more, it's so inhumane that programmers everywhere should demand
better treatment for immigrant IT workers in the U.S. on grounds of
professional solidarity. Precisely because their visit is temporary, H1-B
workers have little incentive to become involved in professional
organizations, and they're powerless to complain if they believe their
employer is involved in illegal or unethical practices: one word of
complaint, and they're on a plane back home. Legislation enacted
purportedly to protect H1-B whistleblowers was gutted to the point that
it's totally ineffective, critics say. Increasingly, H1-B workers find
themselves working for absurdly low wages in "body shops", which do
contract work for companies that formerly had their own IT departments.
Working conditions are nothing short of indentured servitude: H1-B workers
may be forced to sign contracts that involve penalties of up to $30,000 if
they attempt to leave the company and take employment elsewhere. Still,
foreign workers who do manage to obtain their green cards and escape their
former employers see immediate gains in their wages--sometimes 40 percent
or more. Workers freed from exploitive conditions can join professional
societies--and in solidarity, there's strength.
So what's the answer? The programming profession's problems won't be solved
overnight, but here's a place to start. Programmers everywhere should
demand good working conditions for all workers in the profession--including
foreign workers. If there really is a need for foreign IT professionals,
let's make sure they're treated the way programmers everywhere ought to be
treated. That means, at the minimum, bringing these workers in as legal
immigrants with all the rights and privileges enjoyed by a future citizen
of the United States.
In the meantime, join up--the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has
long defended the programming profession, and there's a new organization
called the Programmer's Guild that deserves support, too. To keep up with
these issues, check out the new newsgroup
us.issues.occupations.computer-programmers (if your ISP doesn't carry it,
ask them to get it).
Bryan Pfaffenberger is an author and professor who teaches in the
University of Virginia's pioneering Division of Technology, Culture, and
Communication. His forthcoming books include Linux Clearly Explained
(Morgan Kaufmann) and Mastering GNOME (Sybex).