By MICHAEL S. TEITELBAUM
Is there such an acute shortage of skilled scientists and engineers that
America's computer industry and research laboratories must recruit thousands
of foreign workers yearly in order to compete globally?
That's what Sun Microsystems, Intel, Microsoft and the National Association
of Manufacturers would have you believe. They successfully lobbied Congress to
drop proposals in its immigration bill that would have held down the number
of highly skilled foreign workers. Statistics, however, simply contradict
them. There is no shortage, there is a surplus.
Claims that there was a dearth of engineers began a decade ago, when Erich
Bloch, then-Director of the National Science Foundation, claimed that unless
action was taken, there would be a cumulative shortfall of 675,000 scientists
and engineers over the next two decades.
Congress poured in additional money. The National Science Foundation received
tens of millions of dollars for science and engineering education. And in
1990, Congress nearly tripled the number of permanent visas for highly skilled
Dramatic growth ensued. The number of science and engineering doctorates
reached record levels. Americans earningPh.D.'s in the sciences and
engineering increased 13 percent.
But the number of graduate student slots grew even more dramatically -- about
40 percent -- and most of this increase was filled by foreign students, who
often stayed to compete in the job market. Meanwhile, the United States also
sharply increased the number of foreign-born scientists and engineers it
Alas, no shortage ever materialized, while global competition and the end of
the cold war did. High-tech corporations and defense contractors were forced
to downsize; state budget crises forced large universities to sharply reduce
their hiring of new faculty.
Unemployment among scientists and engineers remains much lower than for
low-skilled workers, as it does for all highly educated workers. Nonetheless,
tens of thousands of highly skilled professionals (scientists, engineers,
computer experts) have been laid off by such companies as I.B.M., AT &T,
Lockheed and Grumman, and job prospects for recently minted scientists and
engineers have plummeted.
It is an employers market. In much of the United States, stagnant or
declining salaries have been the trend. For instance, from 1968 to 1994, the
salary for an engineer with 10 years of experience declined 13 percent as
measured in constant dollars.
A 1995 study by Stanford University's Institute for Higher Education Research
concluded that "too many doctorates are being produced in engineering, math
and some sciences," [not including biological and computer sciences]. It said:
"Overproduction, estimated to average at least 25 percent, contradicts
predictions of long-term shortages given current demand."
A study by the National Academy of Sciences urged universities to provide
students earning science and engineering doctorates with the versatility
needed for nonacademic employment.
For engineers and computer programmers abruptly shed by longtime employers,
the job search is not easy. Companies like Microsoft and Intel have no
incentive to retrain them, because schools are churning out graduates, many
foreign born, with the requisite skills.
As one software professional let go by a computer company reported bitterly,
he and his high-tech colleagues are "disposable" rather than "recyclable."
In short, the picture is bleak: a record number of Ph.D's, but weak demand for them.
Assertion of "shortages," but stagnant or declining wages. Thousands of
downsized professionals, but high-tech employers opposing restraint on foreign
recruitment. Shortage or surplus? Ask any downsized engineer.
Michael S. Teitelbaum, a demographer, is a member of the United States
Commission on Immigration Reform.