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What’s quality got to do with it? On tech shortage, H-1Bs and Stephen Curry

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Saying there is a shortage of “quality tech workers” is like saying there are not enough Stephen Currys in the NBA. (Left: Courtesy photo; Right: Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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“What you have to realize is that all talent isn’t created equal. Top programmers and engineers are many times more productive than the average. This is the talent that Silicon Valley looks for — people who are at the top of their game,” said Vivek Wadhwa, author of the recently published “The Driver in the Driverless Car,” in our discussions about tech shortage.

Many readers who wrote in response to my previous column on tech shortage seemed to agree with Wadhwa and preferred to qualify the kind of tech worker shortage that exists.

On Twitter, Adam @InfennonLabs wrote that there is a shortage but only of “quality tech workers.”
“Every self-respecting tech company only wants to hire ‘the top 10%’ & won’t give the rest a 2nd look,” tweeted Adrien Hsieh.

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“Practically anyone can throw a ball around, but few qualify for the major league or NBA,” Wadhwa explained using a sports analogy.

This, I respectfully submit, is a clumsy connection. The issue of quality is not peculiar to the tech industry and will always be in short supply. In every industry, in every discipline, in every field, in every profession there will always be a shortage of “top” talent. And that’s not indicative of shortage at all — it’s just indicative of the bell curve.

Using the NBA example, it’s like saying there are not enough Stephen Currys. Yeah, duh! If there were, Curry wouldn’t be who he is. More to the point, there are not enough people in the pool with the required qualifications — speed, agility, 3-point shooting and ball-handling skills — to be considered for the team. And the shortfall is sometimes filled with people from other countries. Interestingly, the NBA announced that the 2016-17 season has a “record 113 international players from a record 41 countries and territories,” and all teams have at least one international player.

Wadhwa pointed to the fact that companies often spend millions of dollars to acquire companies for their talent. That’s true, but talent in these companies is a vetted product and companies are paying a premium for a shortcut to productivity.

In response to the idea of a tech shortage, Raj Srinivasan, vice president of engineering at Bivio Networks, remarked on Facebook: “I think the confusion arises from the fact that there are two major categories of tech-workers. One category is heavy in coding, architecture, design, research, and knowledge of internals. The other is heavy in the breadth of knowledge needed to set up and configure systems, maintain labs, plan for expansion of lab facilities, support software that a company uses such as Windows, Linux, and various applications, etc. The first category faces a perpetual shortage, in my experience as a hiring manager. There is sufficient talent available locally in the latter category.”

I think this may be a more differentiated way of looking at the problem than merely through the lens of talent and quality.

Hsieh, too, touched upon this in his second tweet: “tech hiring is not a straight numbers game. Everybody wants to hire Stanford/MIT grads, nobody touches DeVry.”

This idea is further borne out by an editorial recently written by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for the San Jose Mercury News, in which he stated that “employers today often face a shortage today of qualified workers. Many positions require specific skills that involve years of advanced technical scientific training. This problem is particularly acute in the tech sector, where employers need workers with intricate knowledge of computer science and engineering.”

As much as I disagree with Sen. Hatch’s politics, I believe he (and both Srinivasan and Hsieh) may be on the right track here. There are some skills that are in shorter supply than others, and, unfortunately, the existing H-1B program is not equipped to make such distinctions.

Gradations of quality, however, are marginally relevant when there is constricted supply. When there is worker shortage, companies will hire from the available selection. With the understanding that there are workaround solutions for the lesser skilled hires. Companies are often then constrained to provide training on the job, and adjust productivity expectations to suit the skill level of the employee hired. A job is better slowly done than completely undone.

In a study published March 29, 2017 by New American Economy, an organization of mayors and business leaders who support immigration reforms to create jobs for Americans, the unemployment rate of U.S. STEM workers was 5.9 percent in 2010, much below the 9.6 percent for all U.S. workers. Since 2010, that number has been steadily falling to hit a low of 2.7 percent in 2016. The report explains that “[t]o put that figure in context, the U.S. government generally defines ‘full employment’ as a period when unemployment falls at 4 percent or below.” This also means that U.S. STEM workers are being snapped up, quality notwithstanding.

Hiring cannot be just about quality, but qualifications and availability, too. It’s the difference between want and need. While want is nice to have, need is a must have, and I believe that the U.S. tech industry is in a state of need.

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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