Running on empty

Running on emptyThe high-tech skills shortage in the US is not getting any better and is set to get worse, as students fail to live up to the standards of their international counterparts in science and maths results. Worse news is that few students are being attracted by high-tech. Tom Foremski examines the evidence
A recent survey looking at the number of engineering, computer sciences and science degrees issued over the past few years showed a significant drop in most disciplines. The CyberEducation survey commissioned by the American Electronics Association (AEA) showed that the number of doctoral degrees in engineering, computer science, math and physics declined by five percent between 1990 and 1996. The one bright spot in the study was that business information system degrees had increased.
The survey shows that despite increasing the numbers of temporary work visas this year, the visa increase will be at best a temporary band aid, unless the core issue of increasing the numbers of qualified domestic professionals is addressed through improvements in the US education system.
“One of the key messages of this report comes in the form of a question. Specifically, can the high-tech industry in the next millennium continue to grow given the deficiencies in the American educational system?” said AEA chairman Edward Bersoff.
William Archey, AEA President and CEO, said, “Although there are some bright spots in the CyberEducation results, the bottom line is that the US educational system is not adequately preparing our youth for today’s information age economy.”
The study also showed that many students in US schools are trailing behind their international peers in science and math test scores. And although high-tech workers in the US are becoming rich on their stock options and generous salaries, few students are attracted to high-tech disciplines.
Last year was marked by a battle between US high-tech companies and the IEEE-USA over the issue of increasing the number of temporary work visas, known as H-1B, to help tackle a high-tech worker shortage estimated by some as large as 350,000 job vacancies. The IEEE, concerned that the move to increase H-1B visas was an attempt to pressure engineer’s salaries by bringing in cheaper labor, challenged the whole issue that there was in fact a large skills shortage.
The IEEE pointed to more than 134,000 job cuts last year among US electronics companies. The organisation also published figures that electrical-engineering unemployment had actually increased last year, reaching 3.4 per cent, the highest recorded since 1994. And it showed evidence of widespread age related job discrimination for older engineers.
The IEEE also pointed out that there were 50 percent more US high-technology degree holders working outside of their fields than the total number of professionals in the US technical workforce, showing that there was a large untapped source of domestic workers.
The IEEE lost its argument, with US politicians bowing to massive US high-tech company lobbying and agreeing to double the numbers of H-1B visas to 130,000 over the next four years. But even this number is not enough with Silicon Valley firms wanting the annual cap lifted completely, allowing them to hire as many foreign workers as they want.
While there continues to be a US high-tech skills shortage, there is disagreement over how large that shortage actually is and in which types of jobs. New electrical engineering graduates are being wooed by generous starting salaries of more than $45,000 plus generous signing bonuses. And some companies are being “raided” by competitors who can sometimes hire a whole engineering design team in one fell swoop but the demand is for professionals with specialised skills.
Job placement firms, for example, report a key shortage of electrical engineers with experience in analog chip design and there is a shortage of power engineers. Texas Instruments has complained of a shortage of test engineers, and Linear Technology wants more analog graduates.
The AEA and the IEEE are trying to address the core issue of encouraging more students into high-tech degree programs by various initiatives aimed at students as young as eight years old, hoping to inspire them to seek careers in high-tech industries. If that succeeds, the skills shortage will be dramatically reduced but it will take many years to show fruit. Is Silicon Vallye flowing with milk and honey?
For UK electronics engineers the larger H-1B visa pool means opportunities to work for US firms and potentially earn higher salaries than they would in the UK. But the H-1B visa program doesn’t usually result in higher wages compared with US wages, mainly because the H-1B worker is tied to the company that obtained the visa.
“The first thing I did when I arrived was to begin applying for a green card,” said David Steel, a chip designer working at a large California based electronics company and originally from the UK. “That’s the advice I got from my fellow workers. Unless you get a green card, you can’t go after better job offers.”
And the increase in H-1B visas is not turning out as planned with widespread incidents of outright fraud. At a recent hearing of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, State Department and immigrationofficials said that many applicants for H-1B visas are overstating their professional qualifications in order to comply with the rules that state H-1B visas may only be granted to individuals with specialised skills.
And some of the petitioning companies sponsoring the visas are portraying themselves as large multinationals yet turn out to be small companies or are nonexistent. The goal for some of these petitioning companies is merely to find cheap labour for low level positions.

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