Check out this article at the NYTimes about the impact of the H1B visa increase on tech workers. A Bill Allowing More Foreign Workers Stirs a Tech Debate gives me mixed feelings about the state of journalism. It feels like the author is starting to ask the right questions and is no longer simply accepting the business community’s excuse that it can’t find good help anymore but he/she isn’t going quite far enough. I only regret that journalism majors aren’t required to take a bunch of science courses so they could figure this one out.
Here’s the thing the author is missing: if a business brings in cheap foreign labor to do its heavy lifting in science and math and tech, that business still has to train those workers. Oh, yeah. You don’t think they come off the boat knowing how to create the perfect data tables or design drugs do you? F^&* no. That takes practice. Ask anyone who’s actually done the work. In fact, for the pharma industry, it takes at least one good, long lasting project before you get the hang of what the hell’s going on and one project could easily stretch on for several years before it’s killed in some bloody MBA massacre.
As for older tech workers who have not been able to keep their skills fresh, that’s certainly true if you don’t have a job. Just getting our hands on papers is a logistical and economical nightmare. The ACS charges $35.00 for 48 hours of access to a single paper and when you are not affiliated with a lab or college, that kind of money is just nuts. As a result, the unemployed can’t keep up with changes that are happening rapidly in their fields. That’s why so many of us will take part time work, or adjunct work or no pay at all. But it *IS* possible to teach old dogs new tricks. I learned structural biology and molecular biology lab techniques in my last year of work. Was I perfect? No, but I was able to do my job and correct my mistakes, and since I really enjoyed my work, I was looking forward to getting better at it. I was about on par with a H1B visa worker with one year of experience in structural bio when the layoff happened. Plus, I was able to translate what I learned in the lab to my drug design work, which was the real bonus in my move back to the lab. Frankly, I don’t know why more labs don’t try retraining but they don’t. Since it’s not the ability to learn new things that prevents older tech workers from being retained, it must be something else, right?
And relocating. The author says that the H1B visa workers add to the higher salaries in the economy where they are employed. But the reason why businesses are bringing them in is because they are cheaper than the people they are displacing. So, I don’t think I buy this, or anyway, it’s relative to what the local economy was before the massive layoffs. But if high tech/biotech companies really want to save money, they could abandon the coasts for the midwest from whence many of them came. It’s cheaper to live here and there is this thing called the internet. I guarantee, your researchers won’t miss a thing. They won’t miss out on seminars and new information as long as there is wifi. They won’t miss the outrageous cost of housing and, believe it or not, they have Starbucks, Thai food and all the Broadway touring shows you can eat. There is culture and music and all kinds of things to keep you entertained. There are colleges and universities that are not called Harvard or Stanford out here. It’s true. They even teach real educational stuff and have research facilities. So, verily I say unto the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in Cambridge, MA, go west!
There is no good reason for the biotechs to be spending money holed up in Massachusetts and South San Francisco, forcing their workers into more and more precarious existences and stressing them when they should be thinking about science. Since the trend is to keep following the herd to these outrageously expensive places to live in search of get rich quick schemes, then I can only conclude that good science is not the goal with the H1B visa quota. Cheap, exploitable labor is. In other words, the MBA class will do whatever it’s allowed to do until someone tells them it’s not allowable anymore.
So, kudos to the NYTimes for looking into the problem but you need to keep digging.