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Is there really a tech worker shortage?

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Any perceived shortage in tech workers cannot be derived accurately because of the wide-ranging acquisitive techniques employed by tech companies. (Ryan McNulty/2016 Special to S.F. Examiner)

Here’s what we know about H-1B visas: The tech industry postulates a shortage of qualified talent as the basis for the H-1B program. The H-1B visa quota is set by Congress at 85,000 per year. Outsourcing companies manipulate the H-1B system by petitioning for an unusually large number of H-1B visas.

In the fiscal year 2016, outsourcing companies Tata Consultancy and Infosys together sponsored 38,000 petitions.

I do believe the tech industry claim of technology talent shortage is valid, but the large number of H-1B petitions flooding the system is not an index of the shortage. Here’s why …

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Due to the H-1B visa lottery system, hiring an H-1B worker is a hit-or-miss exercise for smaller companies that have a genuine need for the numbers of workers that they petition for. Say, a mid-size San Francisco company has a requirement for 10 H-1B workers. If they petition for 10, they might get allotted significantly less than requested (depending on the total number of petitions in the system). On the other hand, larger outsourcing companies that have the resources and setup can bet on the outcome by petitioning for several times more H-1Bs than they need and likely land on what they need (or close to it).

Any tech shortage cannot be derived accurately, precisely because of the acquisitive techniques employed by companies like Infosys and Tata Consultancy. Mid-size firms, small businesses and companies that believe in fair employment practices in the United States are not in a position to, or not inclined to, game the system in this manner. So they continue to have open and unfulfilled job positions, leading to a continued experience of shortage.

In its December 2015 hiring survey report, DICE.com, a technology job hub, indicated that “nearly half (49 percent) of hiring managers said the time to fill open positions has lengthened relative to last year.” And in its January 2016 report, the situation hadn’t improved, with software developers and software engineers being in high demand and being tough to find and keep.

Bill Gates, Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos have all confirmed the shortage of technology talent. In a petition on Change.org, the above names teamed up with leaders in business, government (including Vice President Mike Pence), education and nonprofit to launch a bipartisan petition to increase funding for computer science in our schools. The letter to Congress declared, “There are currently over 500,000 open computing jobs, in every sector, from manufacturing to banking, from agriculture to healthcare, but only 50,000 computer science graduates a year.”

Gates, in particular, has been passionately advocating to increase the H-1B quota to meet the persistent shortfall.

Most convincing though is empirical data. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, computer science and information technology graduates number 2.4 million between 1970 and 2011. The average rate of graduation is a little less than 50,000 every year, which means that there are about 2.7 million Americans with IT and computer science degrees in the United States, while the industry need currently is 3.9 million. There does seem to be a deficit.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment of computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations … from about 3.9 million jobs to about 4.4 million jobs …” So, if you believe that there is a shortage today, like me, then that shortage is only likely to grow.

Many, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, believe that tech shortage is a fictional idea advanced by technology companies that are more interested in increasing their profit margins by hiring lower-cost workers. In counterarguments, they often cite Census Bureau 2014 statistics that 74 percent of Americans with bachelor’s degrees in a STEM subject are not employed in STEM occupations.

First, let’s be clear: All STEM graduates don’t have tech degrees.

Investigating further, I found those working in non-STEM fields in 2011 ended up largely as managers, physicians, teachers, lawyers, chief executives, social workers, analysts, counselors and accountants (in that order). The point is that they are, for the most part, gainfully employed, even if it’s not in technology.

Vivek Wadhwa, a San Francisco resident, Washington Post columnist and author of “The Immigrant Exodus: Why America is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent,” says that this data point (STEM graduates not employed in STEM fields) is not relevant to the debate about tech shortages. The skills required to work in engineering and technology are fundamental and needed in practically every industry and field.

Indeed, Wadhwa is right. The portability and intersectionality of tech and STEM degrees make them particularly valuable across industries.

The H-1B visa is knee-deep in problems, yet there is incontrovertible evidence that the reason for its existence remains. In other words, let’s acknowledge that we need the H-1B visa, which also means we need foreign nationals to mind the gap. But as I’ve previously written, the priority should be to hire those who are churned out by our schools and colleges (citizens and foreign nationals) and then a merit-based system devised to hire those who are needed to fill the remaining gap.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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