I wanted to come back to the topic of whether we have (1) too many unemployed (or underemployed) scientists and technology people in the US, or (2) a critical shortage of qualified people that's leading companies to complain that they can't fill positions. Can we really have both at the same time? All this bears on (3): should we revise the visa rules to let in more technically qualified immigrants?
The other day I wrote about a PriceWaterhouseCooper (PwC as they would have it) report on this very issue. I'll pick up where that post left off. One thing to notice about the PwC report is that it's aimed at HR departments, and it tells them some of the things they want to hear - that they're important, that they're unappreciated, and that they have a crucial role to play in today's hiring environment. This is not just flattery; this is advertising - aspirational advertising, to be more accurate. That's the technique (used since forever) of pitching an ad to a slightly more elevated group (socioeconomically) than the one it's actually aimed at. Think of mail-order catalogues and credit-card offers; that's where you see this in the crudest form. The idea is to make the recipients think "Wow, they must think I'm one of those people", or (even better) "Wow, I must really be one of those people". That is, the sort of people who shop for this pricey merchandise, or who think nothing of paying the annual fee for a MatteBlackAnodizedPlatinum Card, what have you, because that's the high-end life they lead.
What's PwC selling, then? Why, consulting services to all these HR departments, to help them navigate their extremely important, critical-like-never-before jobs in this extraordinary environment. The HR people have their morale improved, PwC gets some new accounts, and everyone's happy. But the report is still a pure example of the "critical lack of good candidates" idea, being put to more immediate use by a company that sees an opportunity to trade on what's saturating the air right now.
But how can there be a shortage and an excess at the same time? Part of the answer might be found in the work of Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School at Penn. A reader sent that link along to me the other day, and it's well worth a look. Cappelli is the author of Why Good People Can't Get Jobs, and his take is that employers are largely to blame for this situation:
. . .Today’s CEOs regularly blame schools and colleges for their difficulties in finding adequately prepared employees. The complaint shows up in survey after survey, as Cappelli shows in his book, and it is substantially more common among American employers than their peers in most other developed and developing economies.
But do these surveys “show that the United States is among the world leaders in skills gaps,” Cappelli asks, “or simply in employer whining and easy media acceptance of employer complaints?”
He thinks a body of lesser-reported studies contains the answer. “If you look at the studies of hiring managers and what they want, they’re not complaining about academic skills,” Cappelli says. “You hear the business spokespeople saying this, but the actual hiring managers are not saying this now. And in fact they’ve never, in modern times, said that.”
And Cappelli also has pointed out that this view of the world is appealing to several constituencies at the same time, among them, people who advocate school reform and changes in research funding, social reformers of several different kinds, and employers who would rather place the blame for some of their problems on outside factors. There's a reason this idea keeps circulating around - there are a lot of extraneous reasons to keep believing it.
He goes on to decry what he calls the "Home Depot" approach to hiring:
In a 2011 op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal, Cappelli remarked on a telling statistic from the Silicon Valley tech boom of the 1990s: only 10 percent of the people in IT jobs had IT-related degrees. But a lot of the same people would probably have a hard time landing similar jobs today, because employers have increasingly adopted what Cappelli calls “a Home Depot view of the hiring process, in which filling a job vacancy is seen as akin to replacing a part in a washing machine.
“We go down to the store to get that part,” he explains, “and once we find it, we put it in place and get the machine going again. Like a replacement part, job requirements have very precise specifications. Job candidates must fit them perfectly or the job won’t be filled and business can’t operate.”
He lays some of the blame for this on software-based hiring practices, the CV-scanning programs that look for the keywords that supposedly have to be present for a candidate to be considered. (Many readers here may have run into this problem; chemistry and its associated disciplines are an unfortunately good fit for this approach). And here's where some sympathy for the HR people might be appropriate: these sorts of "solutions" are often used when there aren't enough people (or enough time, or money) to do a good job of screening applicants. That's not to say that there probably aren't some HR people who truly believe that this is the best way to do things, but some of them also have their backs to their own walls.
There's another part of that article on Cappelli that takes us to the H1B visa issue:
When there are three or four job-seekers for every vacancy—and some postings draw applicants by the hundred—firms have an understandable incentive to wait for a dream candidate to show up. And ideally, a dream candidate who expresses a low salary requirement.
In (a recent) Manpower survey, 11 percent of the employers reporting skill shortages chalked it up to applicants unwilling to accept job offers at the wages companies were willing to pay.
I have the impression that much of the push to open up the technical-worker visas is coming from Silicon Valley and the IT world in general. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong). And it's also my impression that there are already a lot of people in that job market looking for work - again, if I'm mistaken about this, I'll revise this post. So one (not very charitable) explanation for a drive to bring in more job candidates from abroad is that they will be cheaper to hire, and that employers will have more leverage over them because of their visa situation. Plausible, or not? Update: apparently all too plausible - see this New York Times piece.
Now, it pains me to write that sort of thing, because we could head right off into the whole immigration-reform swamp, which is concerned with a lot of issues that are peripheral to this discussion. (Undocumented workers from Central America, for example, are not a big factor in IT or chemistry hiring). And I think that the US should indeed admit immigrants, that doing so has been one of the big factors in making us the nation we are (the good parts, I mean), and that if we're going to let people in, that we should strongly, strongly bias the process towards smart, entrepreneurial, hard-working ones. So I have a natural sympathy towards the idea of bringing in technically and scientifically trained people.
But not to use them as a source of cheap labor that can be leaned on because of their immigrant status. I don't like that idea much at all, not for what it does to the people who are already here, and not for what it does to the ones who would come here looking for something better, either. And this illustrates the tangle of mixed motives, declared and otherwise, that this whole issue is stuck in. The real reasons people advocate the positions they do in this area can be hard to work out, and that has the nasty side effect of giving everyone plenty of opportunities to accuse others of acting in bad faith, etc. It's a mess.
So, in the same way that I tried to dig into the motives of PhRMA the other day, one can try to look at motivations here. Employers, in fact, could well have an interest in keeping the whole "We can't find good people" line of thinking alive, which is something I mentioned when I brought up the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report. It gives upper management someone else to blame, and in some cases it can be used to keep wages down. As I've said here before, the idea that companies here in the US will hire workers here if they're forced to is, I think, a fantasy. They'll keep those positions open and complain about it instead.
And although this is a particular problem for Silicon Valley and that industry, biopharma is not immune. Not at all.