Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Immigration Reform and Wage Arbitrage

Immigration reform is coming in the U.S.  The Administration believes it has a mandate to loosen immigration controls for visiting workers and corporate America is fully on board.  The hints floated so far offer glimpses into the future of the American middle class.

The tech sector claims it needs more than the current 65,000 H-1B visas to attract STEM professionals.  It's worth noting that a Congressional Research Service report from 2008 found that U.S. universities award just under 400,000 STEM degrees annually.  If this domestic pipeline isn't enough to satisfy the tech sector's demand for skilled professionals, then presumably all of those American-produced graduates are gainfully employed in STEM work.

It's unfortunate that the picture for American STEM graduates isn't so rosy.  Parsing a recent Microsoft report shows that many computer science jobs are held by people who never studied that subject.  A broader look at STEM career trends shows that foreign-born STEM graduates can stay in the U.S. for quite some time to seek work, while many companies continue to lay off tech workers.

One very telling statistic from a National Science Foundation study of the STEM workforce reveals that the involuntarily out of field (IOF) rate for recent graduates is 11.0%.  Think about it.  If 44,000 of those annual 400,000 STEM graduates can't find work in their field, why is industry pushing for even more than the 65,000 green cards for foreign-born workers?  The obvious answer is that the tech sector is not at all concerned about finding employment for those 44,000 lost workers.  It would rather use an influx of more than 65,000 foreigners to drive down wages for remaining STEM employees.

The push for more green card STEM workers has little to do with satisfying an unmet demand for skilled labor.  Tech employers can use an imported glut of qualified workers to press existing employees for wage concessions.  Wage "arbitrage" is sometimes a polite way of saying wage suppression, because that's an easy way for employers to control costs.  Compared to investing in automation or redesigned work flows, lobbying for lower wages via immigration reform has a big payoff.