A friend for many years who happens to be chief financial officer for a Silicon Valley startup has this story to tell about his immigration problems at work:

This is the immigration battle that I fight day-in and day-out.  How do we attract the best and brightest to our shores (H1-B visas) so the jobs stay in America instead of transferring overseas?  The technologists that we work with could work anywhere.  We have to make it easy for them to come here and to contribute here and to have bright babies here and to have those babies set higher standards here.  I see very, very few Smiths or Joneses or Johnsons who contribute at the very top of the math and science that is required to succeed in Silicon Valley.  Right now I’m trying to get a Korean and a Chinese and three Spaniards to come to work for us.  The Spaniards will only work in Spain, so we’ll establish a subsidiary there.  It meets our goals, but America just lost three jobs. We’re hiring about 50 people this year – mostly PH.D.’s in electrical engineering with a deep understanding of algorithmic mathematics and modeling.  The best candidates are either overseas or are foreign students at U.S. universities.  We aren’t looking for cheap overseas labor. We’re looking for people who can do the job.  The salaries at entry level are over $100K per year whether they work here or overseas.

That’s the argument for H1-B expansion in a nutshell and it is hard to dispute — unless, of course, you are an engineer who has been hurt by immigration policies applied in ways their writers perhaps did not intend.  I have a friend in just that position, so I ran past him the paragraph above.  His response:

When I was wrapping up my BS engineering degree in 1979, the head of my department asked me to consider going to grad school.  The reason — the fall 1979 master’s program had no male USA citizens enrolled.  This was at PURDUE — the largest engineering program in the country.

So this problem has been around for 30 years.

At the time most engineers left college with BS degrees.  They could advance themselves faster financially going to work immediately.  If they wanted to continue their education, most companies would pay for it.  Most engineers at the time developed their expertise quite fast — and often surpassed what one would learn in graduate school.  (I probably could have earned a PhD for my simulation work).

In 1981 IBM introduced the PC.  By 1984, five years after my graduation, the engineering profession was turned on its ear.  Accountants doing what-if analysis found the company could be more profitable if all R&D was stopped.  By 1989, 10 years after my graduation my entire profession (Industrial Engineering) was wiped out.  Over 90 percent of the jobs were gone.  Around then I moved to IT.

In the 1990’s there was a mass exodus of U.S. manufacturing jobs.  When the factories were moved offshore, so was the need for engineers.  I’d be willing to bet over two-thirds of the engineering positions in the USA have been eliminated in the past 30 years.

Of all my college friends, only one is still working as an Engineer.  He works for NASA.

With a lot fewer jobs in engineering, college students weren’t stupid — then went to IT and other fields.  IT provided a lot of opportunity until the early 2000’s when the flood of H1-B’s hit.  U.S. workers were run out by people willing to take less pay and no benefits.  Students know R&D and manufacturing jobs have been moved off shore.  They think long and hard about going into engineering.  They know their jobs are as vulnerable as IT jobs.

With a job situation like this — is it any surprise our most gifted students are not studying math, science, or engineering?

My third kid is going to college next fall, to study engineering.  He has visited several schools.  When I went to college there were 3-4 jobs per graduate.  Today there is less than one job per graduate!  With the recent economic downturn a lot of kids could not find work and are presently working on their MS degrees.  We talked to the schools, we met the students.  The schools are honest and provide the facts.

I’d love to go back to engineering.  One of the things I used to do is simulate control systems.  I would analyze the behavior of both the system and the system that controls it.  Do you think this talent would be of value to Toyota right now?

In my current job I help with outsourcings.  Every once in a while I get to see a spreadsheet of a customer’s IT department.  Age discrimination — you better believe there is discrimination.  In corporate America there is most definitely a program to get rid of their technical talent when they hit their 40’s.  Look at any company’s hiring statistics — they will hire folks from age 21-35.  Over 45 the hiring rate is zero.  In this country companies are required to provide equal employment opportunities on race and gender.  They make sure they hire according to the population demographics.  Age is a different thing.  If the average age of the USA population is increasing, why isn’t the average age of new employment increasing?  When you hit 50, why is it next to impossible to get a good job?

The USA, both in business and in government regulations have wiped out the market of science and technology jobs for USA citizens.  The reason there is no talent is because the situation has steered those students to other careers.

Point and counter-point.  But we’re not done.  Here’s my buddy the CFO:

My experience with H1-B is that you have to prove that: (1) you’ve searched for qualified Americans in and out of your company but have been unable to fill the slot (there are many, many cross-checks to assure that is true), and; (2) that you’re paying the immigrant at market rates for like experience and education.  If (a company) isn’t doing that, they have some officer who is personally in perjury with the application process.  I’ve administered the process for some 30 years and when I sign the H1-B affidavits, I know that the above two points are true.  I’ve never hired somebody through the H1-B process in order to lower wage costs.

I think that your friend has some very valid points.  “Engineering,” of course, isn’t one amorphous profession.  The industrial engineers did dissipate.  IT became a new field.  Software became an even newer field based much more on math and less on physics than previous categories.  All engineers in all fields needed to be taught (but most were not) that the half-life of their education was – maybe – 10 years, often five.  Those who understood that went into marketing (if they had half a personality) or management (if they could supervise people and processes) or even into journalism (?).  The “half-life” thing is still alive for all engineers, whether domestic or foreign.  I’m not sure what each individual is supposed to do when he becomes obsolete.

So it is change or die.  Forget about doing the same job for 40 years then getting a pension.  Heck, forget about the pension.

Here we have two completely different views of education, professional development, and the role of immigrants in business today.  Both are correct.  Engineering is in a transition that will put many out to pasture.  Our incentives to study engineering have declined dramatically leaving mainly foreigners in our best engineering programs.  H1-B — when used as it was intended — is a good program that probably should be expanded as industry requests.  Except that not all companies are as scrupulous in their attention to regulations as is my friend the CFO.

The H1-B program can be a tool or a weapon depending on whether you are being employed or replaced by it.  Wholesale replacement of American workers was never in the intentions of those who created H1-B, but then some weasels in HR figured-out how to game the system and so here we are.

This is a complex problem that can’t be handled with a single policy change, but I can suggest a place to start.  Most tech companies want unlimited H1-B visas.  I say give it to them in the form of a new law that mandates third-party compliance audits, hefty fines (with a piece of that fine going to the auditor), and jail time for those found to be skirting or abusing the law.