As Congress considers more H-1B visas, U.S. tech workers struggle to find work

Veteran tech workers see themselves locked out of job market that favors imported immigrants and younger grads

Many tech companies have called for the U.S. Congress to ease restrictions on high-skill immigration because they can't find qualified tech workers to fill open positions. Yet many veteran IT tech workers say they can't find jobs.

More than a dozen veteran IT workers, contacted through the Programmers Guild and high-skill immigration critic Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California at Davis, say they can't find jobs, with many pointing to a glut of cheap workers available through the H-1B visa program.

[ InfoWorld's Bill Snyder explains why Silicon Valley's claims of a tech graduate shortage are untrue. • Caroline Craig explains why Silicon Valley's push for H-1B visas will hurt American tech workers. • And Bill Snyder exposes the lie behind the H-1B push. | Stay ahead of the key tech business news with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter. ]

Fifty-year-old Robert Wade, who has been in the tech and engineering fields for 27 years, has worked 10 months out of the last 40, he says. It's been eight months since his last paycheck, even though he has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's in industrial engineering, with an emphasis in human/computer interaction and user interface design.

A recent study from left-leaning think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, backs up claims by Wade and other veteran IT workers. The U.S. has plenty of workers in the science and technology fields, the EPI study says. But only half of U.S. students who graduate in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields gets a job in those fields -- despite the shortage of STEM grads claimed by tech companies, the study said.

The Information Technology Industry Council, a pro-immigration tech trade group, says the EPI study is "replete with faulty data, exaggerated claims, and plain wrong facts." For one, the EPI study relies on 2009 data when the U.S. was still recovering from a recession, says Robert Hoffman, ITI's senior vice president for government relations.

But even conservative associations such as the IEEE question the need for more H-1B visas, noting that people holding such jobs are tied to a specific company and so less flexible in addressing workforce needs. The IEEE recommends offering permanent resident status (aka a green card), to foreigners willing to move to the U.S. if they have needed skills, such as foreign graduates at U.S. universities. Such workers would also be more likely to be paid prevailing wages than H-1B workers, reducing the economic incentive to avoid hiring Americans who do have the needed skills.

The training trap
Unemployed engineer Wade says he's willing to move for work from his native Indianapolis and has looked in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and other states. "The stories are usually that they have tons of locally unemployed tech workers to choose from, so why would they want to pay for me to move there?" he says. "I've even offered to pay the move myself, and still nothing."

Wade has drawn the line at getting additional training: "I'll take whatever training a company wants me to take, but I'm not spending my savings to get yet more degrees and more certs just hoping that some company will then hire me," he says. "That's all a crap shoot. ... The only way to know for sure is if a company will pay you to take the training," he says. "That means it has value to them. I already have a stinking master's degree and 27 years of experience and yet am having trouble finding a job."

Wade and many other out-of-work IT veterans say it's difficult to compete with lower-cost foreign labor. "Companies mostly just want cheap workers, or they want someone that has already done the exact job they are hiring for," he says.

Many companies post very specific job requirements in an effort to weed out veteran workers, say Wade and other experienced IT workers. Veteran workers can train themselves in new programming languages or tools, but that's no guarantee of a job if they do, they say. In some cases, no one has an advantage in the required job skills. "Some areas are so new, like cloud stuff, that very few people have any experience in it," Wade says. "So whether they hire me or a new citizen grad, or bring in an H-1B visa [employee], they will have to train them all."

Veteran IT workers may have a harder time finding jobs, especially if they need employer training, said Melisa Bockrath, vice president and group leader for the IT unit of Kelly Services. The reasons are fundamentally economic: "You can take a kid out of college who has some good core technical skills ... and you can put the same amount of training in and get them productive to your specific application, and their wage base is a lot lower" than someone with 15 or 20 years of experience in IT, she says.

Stories from experienced tech workers who can't find work
Wade's story of repeated rejection by employers despite his experience echoes those from other veteran IT workers.

John Donaldson, a 51-year-old software developer out of work since October, has been keeping up with Hadoop and other hot IT skills, but he's getting no job offers. Donaldson also has experience with SQL, Java programming, and data modeling, all supposedly in-demand skills.

Some employers claim older workers don't stay current, cutting themselves out of the job market. Donaldson accepts the need to stay current: "In the software development field, you either keep abreast of what's current, or you die," he said. "I've got the chops, very experienced and totally qualified." And yet he's struggling to find work, even though he's based in Oakland, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay Area where a huge influx of young and foreign developers and tech workers continues in response to all the unfilled tech jobs at the Silicon Valley epicenter.

Many companies looking for IT workers are "overly picky," allowing them to pass over veteran workers with similar -- but not the exact -- experience they want, says Donaldson. "Any halfway decent software developer can jump right into any of those languages."

Bea Dewing has long-term experience in data modeling, one of the IT skills that's supposed to be hot. She has worked in the tech industry since 1986, as a programmer, systems analyst, database designer, and project manager. She's been out of work since December.

"I have been doing this type of work since I got my B.S. in computer science ... in 1986," she says. "I was just turned down for a job after having a very successful meeting with the data management team at a large corporation. I was assured by my recruiter that they would make an offer within a week. Someone came in with a cheaper person, so that job is gone."

Dewing, 61, moved to New York City to take a project, then says she was laid off and replaced by a foreign worker. She has relocated 14 times for jobs, she says.

Many Indian recruiters that Dewing has talked to recently start the conversation by low-balling an hourly rate, she says. "I personally find it insulting to be treated like a commodity. The assumption seems to be 'Get your rate low enough and you'll be hired.'"

Dewing has two friends over age 50 who also cannot find work in IT, she says. One former IT employee "works as a dog walker, and one lives on recycling cans and bottles, which she fishes out of trash cans."

Greg Steshenko, who immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union in 1987, says he hasn't worked steadily since 2002. The resident of Silicon Valley has a master's degree in electrical engineering, a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, and a second bachelor's in biochemistry and molecular biology.

Steshenko, 51, has worked as a nanotechnology engineer, a software engineer, and a digital hardware design engineer. "I'm unemployed, on welfare," he notes. "Since 2002, I had just very brief periods of temporary employment as an engineer-consultant, hotel clerk, and a Home Depot associate."

He's taken college courses throughout his years of unemployment. "I'm over-educated and over-experienced," he says. "The depth and breadth of my education and experience could hardly be matched. I am able to perform any job in electronics, programming, and biomedical industry, and I'd be able to come up to speed within a week or two. Still, [there's] no job for me in this country."

Asked if he's keeping his skill set current, Steshenko says it's difficult to guess what hiring companies want, when technology is constantly changing. If a developer has experience in Android 2.0, "the company would be hiring only someone who had at least six months of the [Android] 4.0 experience," he says. "And you cannot get that experience unless you are hired. And you cannot get hired unless you provably have that experience. It is the chicken-and-the-egg situation. "

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