Friday, May 24, 2013

Interesting event yesterday - different worlds colliding (which is usually good to experience every once in a while)

I went to a STEM/high skill visa event at the Capitol yesterday that was interesting simply in how many different worlds it brought together. The audience was primarily Congressional staffers and journalists. Hal Salzman was the only academic on the panel. There was an immigration lawyer, government relations or human resources people from TI and Intel, as well as two industry associations, and a representative of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) science programs. The group that organized the event deals a lot with diversity in STEM and getting underrepresented minorities interested and active in STEM.

Diversity vs. Immigration: With all the industry people there, the diversity angle was nice because they were agreeing a lot with Hal - suggesting that they were graduating a lot of domestic students that were having trouble getting jobs and the idea of a shortage sounded odd to them. Usually you don't see the diversity in STEM/STEM immigrants discussion coming together in this way but that was very productive I thought.

Scholarly vs. Popular Literature: It was also interesting to see the research and industry worlds collide. One of the guys from an industry association said that Hal sounded like "climate change denialists" because ours was the only study out there saying there were no shortages. This was shocking to me. I know a lot of economists that support high skill visas but I don't know any off-hand that think we have a high skill labor shortage. Certainly none of the big names in the high-skill labor literature. All of the major economic studies on the question since the 1950s that I know of are skeptical of the labor shortage claim. But of course, this guy isn't thinking of the economic literature when he said Hal was like a climate change denialist. He's thinking of the studies he's seen from trade associations and think tanks. I pretty much ignore the trade association studies and have a very discriminating eye when it comes to think tank studies (I think for good reason!), but that seems to be all he has in mind.

Politics vs. Policy: Our group was talking to a journalist we know that covers these issues afterwards - he was asking us some questions and we were trying to get feedback from him. What struck me about that conversation was how focused most people were on the politics driving the immigration bill, specifically how the high-skill provisions were being structured to get Republican support for a bill many would rather not support. I'm very much a "politics without romance" guy and that sort of thing isn't news to me. But it's also not the interesting question for me at all. The interesting question is the policy question - what conditions would justify these policies and do those conditions exist? But a lot of people are not really focusing on that.


  1. Industry will always argue that they "need" more higher skilled people (at lower wages).

    Was there any discussion of what effect increased STEM immigration would have on the domestic production in those fields. It seems to me that announcing increased STEM immigration will discourage American students from pursuing those fields.

  2. Actually, not really, I think. The thing is, kids generally make their "commitment" to STEM careers in high school. They decide "programming is neat!" or "I want to understand why there are so many different kinds of birds" or "Can they make atoms that don't weigh anything?" or whatever, and go off to college with such ideas in mind. The nuts and bolts of immigration issues are pretty far from their minds, and the idea that admitting an extra 100,000 IT workers per year right now might affect their livelihood ten or fifteen years from now isn't really on their minds.

    After Sputnik, I recall, there was a big push from the Federal government to encourage kids to enter science and engineering fields -- NDEA scholarships, lots of publicity about science fair competitions, lots of newspaper coverage about satellite launches, etc. -- and that had a big effect, especially since teachers and guidance counselors went out of their way to encourage kids doing well in math and science courses to go to college in technical fields. These days, I don't think those factors apply so much.

  3. "The thing is, kids generally make their "commitment" to STEM careers in high school."

    That is not my personal observation. I did a physics degree and then went to law school as a rational economic choice. About twenty-five percent of lawyers seem to have STEM degrees. I think that of the math majors I knew most ended up as CPAs (including two of my siblings). The best chemistry student I knew became a doctor.

  4. Absalon:

    Ah! I stand corrected, palms poised protectively over my bruised fundament.

    A decent point -- people leave STEM fields. Still, when they do so today, is it the thought of foreign-born competition that drives them out, or simply the perception that engineering or scientific careers ren't that attractive on a personal basis? I recall being told back in the early 70s that about 1 out of 3 beginning aerospace engineers quit and found other types of employment within a year or so after starting engineering jobs. Clearly a rising number of H-1Bs wasn't a factor back then.

  5. "One of the guys from an industry association said that Hal sounded like "climate change denialists" because ours was the only study out there saying there were no shortages."

    To reiterate the point. I guess nobody said that if employers paid STEM workers higher wages, they would find plenty of qualified Americans. I guess these are also jobs that Americans just don't want to do. ;)


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