For this post, I interviewed Andy Alexander. Andy is an elder at City Reformed Church and the owner of an engineering consulting firm. Andy has been working in the computer/tech industry since the late 1980’s and is able to share about how this industry has been impacted by immigration over time. In this post, we are discussing “legal immigration”, almost exclusively. But as usual – it is complex.
AA: There’s been immigrants for decades in the technical world. A large part of the US space program in the 50’s and 60’s, after WW II, was populated by Germans. In the 1990’s, immigration law was changed to increase the number of temporary visas (H1B’s) for people with technical skills. To obtain one, an employer is supposed to justify that an open position could not be filled from people already in the US. Also, H1B’s are a special kind of temporary visa with an intentional path to obtaining a “green-card”, allowing work in the US without a need for repeated renewal of that permission. In my experience, it is typical that people admitted under H1Bs are from India and have less experience in their field. They are also mostly people with a background in software or IT.
MK: Are most of these people here legally?
AA: Yes. I haven’t heard of anyone in the US working illegally in this area.
MK: How has this affected you?
AA: The earliest I remember working with people here on an H1B was in the mid to late 1990’s at Union Switch and Signal. This was at a time when demand for software skills was very high – the Y2K crisis was in full swing as was the growth in internet and PC application software. The people I met and worked with at the Switch were good friends, with families.
Towards the end of my time there, I did sense the competition from India. The company was always looking for ways that they thought it would be cheaper to get things done. Contractors, on a sponsored H1B, were one way.
My career path took me in a direction away from that company where there was less of this kind of competition for a while. Even at this new company, after a while I did see the increased push for more hires along with an unwillingness to spend as much on people as they might have otherwise.
Since leaving that position and starting a consulting company, I am acutely aware of the competition. A good part of the work my company does requires access to specialized hardware as part of a product development process. This is one of the ways that we compete against lower cost engineering services. Still, I have a need to explain why the rate a potential client might be paying for someone isn’t always going to lead to the lowest cost for a completed project.
MK: How is this different than other professional fields?
AA: Unlike lawyers and doctors, engineers have not maintained the same legal protections. At least in Pennsylvania, to advertise yourself as an Engineer, you must have a Professional Engineer’s license. Over time, the need for this license in many fields has diminished. Typically, a licensed engineer is only needed in things such as building design and construction, power distribution and chemical plants.
MK: What about outsourcing/offshoring?
AA: In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, cultural barriers made it difficult to successfully finish software development work outside of the US. One of the methods used by some companies providing offshored services is to place one of their workers at the client’s site. This person provides the direct interaction with the client and then relays the necessary information to the people working in the primary office of the supplier.
MK: Since the availability of labor directly impacts wages (supply/demand) some people would be in favor of protecting the market. How do you think about the role that the government should have in limiting the labor force?
AA: I’m not sure, exactly. Clearly, all governments are involved in limiting and regulating trade. Consider the concept of “Free Trade Agreements”. If trade was going to be completely free, a free trade agreement would be a simple one liner: “we won’t have any restrictions or tariffs on goods or services between our two countries.” Differences in taxation and other preferences for certain kinds of businesses within a country make this simplicity impossible.
My main point in all of this is the complexity of the issue. Adding people to the available pool is good for employers because it reduces the salary they need to pay. On the other hand, it reduces the opportunities and incentives to enter the field.