It seems that every large company that's even remotely connected to the tech industry has been behaving as if all of Asia (and their notoriously inexpensive wage base) just moved in next door and is threatening to "blow them out" with cheaper labor costs including tech wages. If they really believe that then the next "straw man" is that "training is futile" because surely my hypercompetition would just let go whoever doesn't have "working experience" (you know, claimed to have worked five years in a field that's only existed for six months) in the very "latest technologies" (which are often trivially diffreent than something that already existed in another field, but it's significant because we're only concerned here about the level of corporate paranoia) and just hire those who do, so I have to follow suit. To this we add "spreadsheet mangement" in which we calculate the cost of everything but appreciate the value of nothing (ie my net "value" to my employer solely exists in the contents of a spreadsheet cell that knows nothing about which technologies I'm trained in, other than what I'm currently working on) and you're pretty close to what we're seeing right now. You're also seeing quite a willingness of overseas workers to accept "substandard" (heck, even minimum!) wage rates just to be allowed to work here, they can barely afford to SURVIVE much less take "continuing education courses" which of course calls into question the speculation over a possible "STEM boom" for the educationists (I don't say "teachers" because my personal experience just doesn't bear out the literal definition). Not only doesn't this augur well for a robust tech future, it really makes me wonder if we could replicate today our race to the moon, and if we get into any kind of conflict with a tech-savvy opponent where we need entirely new kinds of weapons developed ...well the future dosn't look too bright, to put it mildly!
I can hear the passion and frustration behind your response. Thank you so much for pouring out your thoughts. When I first read the "training is futile" I wondered if it was a rationalization, yet another reason for hiring from abroad. Yet, has the U.S. worker been so beaten down that they aren't innovating or being entrepreneurs at any reasonable rate? Is the economic climate so bad that it invokes fear?
I have to believe there is so much more to this than bottom line rules. That it's a combo of complacency, fear, resignation, and industry grown up to which is added cheap labor and maybe schools that still teach abroad.
Again, I have no answers, just more questions.
Hope more people weigh in. I think this discussion is really important.
I am an immigrant electronics engineer from Istanbul/Turkey. I came to the US in 1994 on an H-1B visa. I started working for a machine builder company in Southern California and designed and programmed the control systems for their machines. It was a small company and I was the only controls engineer. Later I got a job offer from a large company with 3500 employees all around the world. This is where my experience relates to this article "You'd Rather Import Than Retrain" The company was located in Chicago and I worked in their LA office. There were 6 software engineers in the department I started working for. All American born guys. All of them were really smart sharp guys. The team designed and wrote special firmware for the company's flag ship product. All 6 of them together produced 4 firmware in 2 years. On the other hand I managed to produce equally functional 11 firmware on my own in 1 year. I'm not exaggerating nor claiming that I'm a super-genius engineer. I'm probably an above average engineer but that's about it. The reason why I could produce so much was that I really worked harder with long hours on my own will that is without my boss pressuring me. Also I had a multi-disciplinary knowledge that we call today "Mechatronics" which enabled me to understand the product in more detail and design solutions for the product more quickly. The other guys only knew 1-2 or disciplines related to the job. I read 3-4 magazines related to my work they read none; some of them didn't even know that these magazines existed!! I also had the drive that all immigrants have which is to prove myself and be integrated into the community so that I can be accepted and regarded as an American. This drive pushed me to excel in any work I did and do the utmost best I can. This probably answers the question for "What happened to the innovative and energetic American engineers of the 80's". American engineers, I must add not all of them of course but a large number of them, have been grown up with the sense of entitlement so they expect to have a high paying desk job within a comfortable environment and definitely do not want to get their hands dirty on the job. They believe it's the technician's job to deal with the nitty gritty stuff. Whereas immigrants like me will just grab the screwdriver and dive into the control panel or machine junction box and fix the problem without waiting for the technicians to arrive. So given all these facts if you put yourself in the company's HR managers shoes would you hire me or the other guys? So more questions huhJ
How to remedy this problem and bring back the innovative and productive environment that America used to be and what actually drives immigrants like me to come to the US are I guess the million dollar questions. Culture change comes to my mind first and foremost. Technical education in the US is excellent, resources for technical knowledge is incredibly abundant. Job opportunities in the US is huge but for high level skills. Plus this is the land of true opportunities. I'm now an owner of a small engineering company that works in the field of Industrial Automation. I've been in business since 11 years and I believe the sky and yourself is the limit in this country. If you try and work hard on it you will get a big chance to succeed. This is what America is all about or was about!!!
OK, let me contribute another data point. A few years ago I was working in the systems integration group of a division of a Fortune 500 company for a very adept young manager. The company had a very liberal education policy as far as paying for earned credits, so my manager availed himself of the opportunity and got not just one but TWO master's degrees (one was an MBA). When the phase of the project we were on together was over, he found he had dug himself a VERY deep hole and had to struggle very hard to get them to find him a new assignment. Why was that? Well the HR folks told him they'd have a hard time finding an opening inside the company that would justify paying him the kind of salary a fellow with two master's degrees was capable of pulling down, whether or not HE was worth the money!! I tend to think that tends to at least point towards poor corporate "policy issues" if not overall flawed management practices, I mean in my experience it's hard enough to find companies willing to pay enough for education to make pursuit of advanced degrees worthwhile, but then to find one and have their management just about turn their back on him ...it borders on insanity in my book. Yes there ARE situations where you'll find instances of a "lack of personal motivation" but I think I'd look a lilttle higher up the chain of command for most of the trouble. After all omerg0 even you're going to the trouble of running your own company, it clearly doesn't suggest it was easy even for you to find a company that would apply an appropriate value to your talents!
That's an amazing example. Maybe that's one element of this question. The buzz, energy and entrepreneurial spirit was created and maintained for a good long time by the very technical entrepreneurs that created the companies. When they handed the keys over to otheres and moved into the CTO role--could the company ever be the same?
JeffL_2, you are absolutely right it was certainly not easy for me to get where I am today. In fact the experience I had to come to this point had very painful moments and would probably be discouraging for most people. I would like to give examples on that but I don't want to digress. Unfortunately in today's extremely competitive world there is no easy way or straight path to be even barely successful if you are not willing to put up with the mud and grit that life throws at you. I do agree with corporate chaos and incompetence of managers. That does have a lot to do of why America is not as competitive and innovative as it should be today. Managers and especially bean counters stifle innovation by dramatically cutting down on R&D. American companies were the world's largest spenders on R&D and thus the greatest innovators. Somewhere along the line this quarters profits became more important than innovation, product quality and customer satisfaction. Employees became as you mentioned just a spreadsheet number and were dispensable. This killed all the drive and enthusiasm that any employee had. There is no doubt about this fact. However it still is a personal responsibility issue. Yes the corporate and your manager may have treated you unfairly but it is still up to you to stand up and dust yourself and move on to another path. If your job is causing you extreme stress and stifling your future you should be willing to flip burgers for a while until you find a better way. I worked on fixing electrical systems on machines and sometimes repairing home appliances between jobs just to pay my bills.
There is one thing omerg0, there used to be a "premise" (I'm wondering to what extent it still applies) that in order to avoid rendering yourself "unemployable" your resume (CV) needs to reflect that you've been constantly seeking positions of equal or (preferably) ever-higher knowledge and responsibility. Even in today's job climate the HR folks are clearly broadcasting the message that as little as 3 months of either joblessness or activity outside your primary career field is sufficient to render you "unemployable" as far as the job market is concerned, which certainly rules out "burger-flipping" if you want to get the maximum leverage out of your primary expertise and education. Now I certainly view a lot of this as corporate-level "excuses" either not to hire or simply for HR to get involved in a decision and "throw their weight around". Where you have to be careful is not to "condemn" any particular individual for believing this "rule" is still in effect and that he would not be a responsible member of his community if he did not follow it. But I WOULD tend to agree that not "keeping up with technology advances in one's chosen industry" would certainly be a possible indicator of a lack of enthusiasm and ambition.
I'm not sure if the HR department's decision about 3 months of jobless period applies in all cases. I can give you an example. The girlfriend of a friend of mine is also a Turkish immigrant and she came to the US on an F1 student visa. She graduated from UCLA as an industrial engineer. She had 1.5 years to stay in the US to seek internship. So she searched for companies who would be willing to sponsor her for H1-B visa. It took her almost a year to find one. In between she worked on a portable shop stand in a mall selling beads and bracelets etc. standing up for hours. The company that agreed to hire her is an aerospace company. They were particularly interested in her verbal skills and the way she presented herself in the interviews. Here I must point out that she was very keen on "keeping up with technology advances in one's chosen industry". She out performed every other candidate in that area. She took Six Sigma classes in between her education. She was well versed on ISO9001 quality control principles. So HR didn't even pay attention to her jobless period and most important they didn't even consider the fact that this was going to be her first job in the US!! Now this was some years ago but I believe it still applies today. So what I'm trying to say is if you advance yourself to the top level you can achieve and hone your skills both verbally and knowledge wise I'm pretty sure there will be many opportunities for work. Yes there are some HR departments that run your CV on a computer and look just for keywords or the issues you mentioned but do you really want to work for a company like that?
First of all, congratulations on your career. Yes, it's amazing how "lucky" one can get when you work all hours to become so lucky! My concern is tthat a cultural change has taken place. That would be nothing short of tragic.
Please, folks, continue to chime in with what you think.
I know other US born engineers with similar enjoyment and dedication for engineering.
Of course I have seen immigrant engineers tackle engineering life with just as much gusto (or way more given they are young and single :-)
But just as with US born engineers, I have seen the opposite side of the spectrum, those engineers (US born or H1B visa or ...) that have personal lives outside of work, that have work/life balance for what ever reason. Who take pleasure and apply themselves to many other activities outside of work. Sometimes I envy them, sometimes I don't. We all take our own path, and given the large amount of data points I've seen over the quarter of a century doing engineering design, I don't see any clear trend in one category or the other. After all, we are all "just human".
Stop and think about it... yes, for a company to retrain experienced Americans is expensive and time consuming, whereas the H1B comes with the basic knowledgebase and is quicker to train, and of course is cheaper. This wouldn't be a problem if the experienced American worker wasn't so lazy. If they watched the technology advancements and took the time to retrain themselves, they wouldn't be out of a job. I always got the training myself. The company doesn't owe you; you owe the company since they gave you the privilege to work for them. (No, I'm not a manager.)
But we have another major factor that has been overlooked. We've had H1B people entering the work force for many years, who now have their Green Card or are US citizens, and a lot of them have moved up to middle and senior management. And yes, they speak English, but typically converse in their native language. I see it in the diverse company I work at and the mixed marriage I've been in for thirty years.
If you take two people with different native languages, you always run into some misunderstandings. Translation from language to language is not always clear. So why not hire H1B workers that speak your native language, understand your customs, have the knowledge, and are cheap? To me this is a no brainer.
"So why not hire H1B workers that speak your native language" because it is illegal in the USA to converse about buisness in anything but English. The law is designed to prevent companies from discriminating against USA citizens. Companies know they break the law, and the Labor dept. refuses to enforce it. For you to sue, you have to prove they are talking about buisiness and not just socializing. But if you do not speak hindu or chinese how exactly are you to do this? It is illegal to record people speeaking without thier permission!
The government should start enforcing the laws of this country, and stop biasing towards H1B workers, which companies admit to lying about needing.
Yes... enforce the laws, as well as allow labor to organize. Why is it corporation can collude to prevent labor competition and keep wages low, but labor organizing is somehow criminal. People in this country have been sold out by those who have theirs and don't think others deserve anything. It's immoral, to say the least. CEO's make more in the few minutes it takes for windows to load on their office computer in the morning than a factory worker in a whole week. If anyone thinks that is good, they truly need their head examined!
Calling people lazy is lazy and stupid. Americans workers are treated like garbage by a wealthy ruling class that has no sense of history or patriotism. If wages and salaries tracked productivity the way they did for all US history until the 80's, the situation would be a lot different now.
Hey.... if you want to be a workaholic that is fine; however, don't put yourself on a pedastal simply because some people, especially engineers refuse to be treated as slaves of corporate plutocrats and bought and paid for politicians!
So you have contracted loans to pay the huge fees of high schools and in the end, corporations prefer cheap H1B visas . So you are stuck and can't declare bankrupcy (an exception for students loans eh eh!). You are like millions of students living in parent's home and queuing for a job at McDonalds. Cool. Welcome to the wonderful New World Order where only corps and bankers rule. You see, corps deny you a job but bankers are asking for a full refund... Meanwhile high schools make big buks.
As one who has worked for many years in engineering and who is now a CTO, I can speak to some of these issues.
I'm employed by the board of a small company. My contract says I have to do what they tell me. The board is comprised of several people with considerable experience running small to medium-sized companies but who have no technical skills whatsoever, along with three more who have both technical and non-technical experience. The non-tech contingent outnumbers the tech contingent, 3:2. The Chairperson is, however, a very technically-competent former Software Engineer with considerable PMP experience, who also happens to be an MBA.
My contract says I have to do what the board says. When the board says, cut costs any way possible, I must comply. Usually, this means cutting budgets. This is nothing new. However, the policies which drive this effort to save costs vary greatly from company to company. It is possible to do it whilst preserving an entrepreneurial spirit and keeping people's morale high. But is is not easy.
Companies for which I've worked in the past have had some policies, well, let's just say, immoral bordering on illegal. I won't name any names, but I've seen things like the following:
Informally, have a "cut-off" level at which if you haven't made management, you are out the door. It's a way of cutting payroll (like sports teams do). How you fill the empty positions doesn't matter, as long as you keep the cost of new-hires as low as possible. I suspect that this runs counter to labor law.
Always have one really experienced engineer with a very long career on your interview list. Always get them to second-interview so you can discuss salary with them. Take a number very slightly below that and make it the upper-bound. Find your lower bound through interviews. Now eliminate everyone (regardless of how good a fit they are for the position or even if the team and hiring manager likes them) who is between the median and upper bound, pick the lowest salaried prospect who can still pass the interview and hire them. Literally, it was like clockwork. We as manager were taught how to follow this process in a 1-day training.
Just don't ever hire or re-hire anyone who has more than a certain number of years' experience in the field or who's ever worked here before. This was actually in the policy manual at one company I worked for.
And it goes on and on. So, how do we avoid this? Simple - but it has cost us potential investors over the years. Namely:
our hiring policy states explicitly (and it's also in our articles of incorporation) that we value three things most in an employee: skillset, team/social compatibility and productivity. We know that it is difficult to judge productivity based on three or four hours of face-time, so we allow for judgement calls on the part of the hiring manager and the team to which the prospect will be assigned.
our company policy states that, when we have successful, productive teams where results are proven, we will not relocate, lay-off or force-out these teams excepting as a last-resort. We have, thus far, never had to do so (however it has come close).
our policy states that all teams must have at least two experienced members: one with deep technical knowledge of the area in which said team operates, and one with deep technical management skills (includes PMP/Agile or whatever required for said area). There may be more than two, but there are always at least two. That's right - the most experienced (and often most expensive) members on any team are always the last to go. Oh, and by the way - if we lay someone off, the situation changes, and somehow they are still available - we will make extra efforts to hire them back at their departing salary/benefit level and retained seniority.
and finally, social issues are important. Which means, no arseholes. No prima-donnas. If you have extra abilities and you share them with someone else on your team who needs help, you are rewarded. If they come to you, learn something new and then use it to effect, they are rewarded also. ANd so on.
As I said, yes - it's cost us potential investors. VCs wouldn't even talk to us, neither would banks. But we believe in what we're doing. This small company is succeeding even in times of financial crisis. Why? Because we stick together and pull through, no matter what. Board members come in on weekends sometimes to help the staff. We know that if we ever have internal devisiveness, we're dead as a company.
Would I ever want to work anywhere else? Heck no. We value our experienced employees very highly and they return the favor by working their butts off to get stuff done. Because we're all on the same end of the rope.
Wow, what an excellent post. It made me want to stand up, wave flags and cheer--really. I comment you and your company, its board, and any investors that have appreciated this company to date. I'm so glad you landed in this company.
Sounds like you should consider writing a book. Thanks for resposnding.
Is it a wonder, then, that H-1B visas are so controversial and that corporate executives so distrusted? Hardly.
But the truth is, the US has always been at the forefront of innovation BECAUSE of enterpreneurial immigrants, right? It's just that in the past, there was enough growth to go around for US and immigrant smart guys. The cause of the malaise now is really simple: globalization. US workers didn't so much have to compete against Chinese workers living in dormitories before, so there was considerably less downward pressure on the wages of highly skilled people in the US.
It should be obvious to any engineer. Globalization is a negative feedback loop, working to stabilize global salaries. It creates downward pressure on salaries in developed countries, and puts upward pressure on salaries in developing countries. Just like any self-regulating machine would do. The only real problem here is that today, we are living in that transitional phase.
We created the Internet, which is probably THE most important tool to enable globalization. The well-known law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head again.
As to motivated smart guys, I have a hard time accepting any generalities on that score. I have worked with plenty of immigrant engineers who are not so motivated or so bright, or indispensable, and the same applies to US engineers. And by the way, the same applies to women. Generalities I keep hearing on this, in my experience anyway, are generally wrong.
@Bert, this is the most reality-based post that I see in this thread. It's interesting that the subject involves worker retraining, but in a sense it is the companies that need to be retrained. The practices described in other posts have been doable because employers have been so firmly in the driver's seat for so long. Now they are beginning to gear back up enough that demand is beginning to exhaust supply. The easiest way around that is to increase supply, because the alternative is to change the culture that considers engineers and other workers as interchangeable parts, and that is a painful and expensive process.
"change the culture...that is a painful...process"
Omigod! Heaven forbid that we create a situation that would require the CORPORATION to know anything about PAIN! Certainly we "interchangeable... workers" would know nothing about that entire concept!... sorry Larry, I mean you got it right, just seemed like it needed a little emphasis...
I was in the situation back in the mid 90s where qualified employees were hard to find. My company was a startup - we had to get our product sold, that was first priority. I had to hire ten people over a one year time frame, manage them, manage my direct accounts, and grow the business. I picked two people on H1-Bs and I only got one of them - and they were not cheaper. A startup has no time to train, and startups are where the growth and jobs are during an economic recovery. So its a no brainer - hire the most qualified people who can hit the ground running in a tight employment market and pay market wages! Hopefully we will see this kind of growth and tight employment in tech. I believe we will. But its up to the prospective employees to keep their skills sharp.
Sharp skills and a lack of arrogance are useful to both management and labor, even professional labor like engineering. The time period that you mention is instructional, because at that time the shoe was truly on the other foot and the pain was being felt by companies that were desperately trying to hang on to engineers long enough to finish their projects. What goes around comes around, and people can have long memories.
I find it curious that the subject of this blog involves retraining experienced U.S. tech workers vs. importing more H1B tech workers. Retrain them for what? If they are experienced, they have skills and knowledge, and most likely learned long ago that education is a lifelong process -- especially in our industry, where we all need to keep current with evolving technologies, tools, processes, etc. or the value of our labor starts to decline. So who are these American engineers & technicians that require substantial retraining, and what is the reason they now have that need?
Fot that matter, yes there are many similarly experienced foreign technicians & engineers who would like to work in the U.S. if they had the opportunity. Do they require retraining too? If so, why? If not, why not? Other commenters have mentioned their belief that a foreign worker coming to the U.S. on a H1B visa would be less expensive. Are they sure about that? The comparison cannot be between an experienced engineer and a fresh college graduate. That is not an apples to apples comparison, regardless of the country of origin of either the experienced engineer or the new graduate.
"Well, there you go again!" - there's Bigfoot, there's the aliens who landed in Roswell, there's the Loch Ness monster and then there's the "retrained then hired" engineer. Look I honestly don't want to destroy all that many "urban myths" but there's part of me that just KNOWS that any substantial quantities of the latter will be just about the LAST of the above list to be found in the wild. It's just like the day the salesman dropped in on the harried customer and showed him samples from the product line, in a desperate effort to make the salesman GO AWAY the businessman blurts out "gee I'd love to buy your #549, too bad it doesn't come in purple!" and he really doesn't WANT to see the same salesman show back up the next day with a purple prototype! That's what MAKES it a myth, I don't think you'll actually ever FIND that "missing skill", you're also leaving out the issue that for those two years of the H1B the transferee is very docile and unquestioning and williing to put in lots of (probably unpaid) overtime because he's afraid (correctly) that any other kind of behavior and he'll be sent home right away. We've heard too in other blogs that between 5 and 10 years of work experience is the "sweet spot" for hiring, over 10 years you would be considered "overqualified" and retraining doesn't help with THAT. The internet is here to stay, cheap labor is mobile and credentials are available, and excessive experience is considered a negative, so the domestic engineer with experience becomes unemployable, and anything else we do we won't succeed in putting the genie back in the bottle. (Oh I keep hoping there's some kind of "discrimination law" we could charge the hiring authority with or some positive incentive that could be offered to turn it back, but until someone in DC actually wants to make this an issue and get some legislation passed, I'm afraid the cards have pretty much been dealt for this hand, and I'm really not too concerned that people will think that much less of me for being a realist.)
Perhaps the "retrained then hired" engineer is an urban myth. But the question remains, why or for exactly which skill sets does he/she need to be retrained? The debate presumes that the unemployed U.S. engineer's skills that were once (until recently) valued by an employer are no longer valued, or that the foreign engineer brings something to the table besides lower cost -- some skills or experience that for unexplained reasons are lacking in his U.S. counterpart.
When bringing in contractors it makes sense to find people with very specific skill sets for the task at hand. When hiring employees we are used to companies taking a longer view and looking for broader experience and flexibility. It seems to me that many hiring managers are not doing that right now. I believe that this is a holdover from the view that there are hordes of well-qualified people out there desperately trying to get a job. If that is the case, why not be picky?
Training is also a short- versus long-term view issue. Training somebody requires anticipation of what skills a company will be needing at some point in the future. If you are hiring on a JIT basis it is impractical.
Training is a short-term issue, education is a long-term issue. A one-week training class on an EDA tool can jump-start an experienced IC designer who has used other tools but not this particular tool. But that training class won't do much good for someone who has zero experience in IC design, or even worse, zero education in electronics. So I ask again, who among the U.S. engineering population needs re-training and why? Do we need to train mechanical engineers to become electrical engineers? If so, that's an education issue that goes far beyond training. Do we need to train digital engineers to become analog engineers? Do we need to train VHDL experts to become Verilog experts? Again, where does the foreign engineer fit into all this, and what does he/she bring to the table that an experienced U.S. engineer is lacking?
The vast majority of jobs held by H-1Bs are entry level and anybody with an AA degree in CS with some smarts could do them. I know because I did that type of work at the end of my career and our company hired a bunch of H-1Bs. We did "software testing". There is no amount of retraining needed for this. All you need is somebody to show you how the company complies with it's government mandate to validate it's software. Those standards are made up by the companies themselves unless the end user is the military. The idea that existing American programmer's and engineer's skills are out of date is nonsense. The only thing out of date is a salary high enough to pay American living expenses.
I've decided I'm all for H1 visas, with the proviso that the imported worker is paid the maximum salary for the position AND the company bringing in that worker pays the cost of an unemployment benefit for the worker who's job is taken.
I think it only fair that we don't use the desperation of foreign workers to better themselves as an excuse to drain the resources of another country and to take advantage of the worker.
I also think that seeing the company is looking to make money themselves to the detriment to the economy at large that they should share in society's cost which they helped create.
We had a government a while back that introduced training guarantee legislation where a company had to spend $x on training per employee per year or pay a tax to that amount. It was limited to companies with more than 10 employees, and it caused companies to take seriously their role in society which includes helping create the next generation of a given skill.
It helped reduce unemployment and skill shortages and created "training" companies. There were also few work Visas requested. It was good for a few years until a different governement took office and scrapped it
The world seems severely scewed in my opinion where a majority of people are voting in governments that don't work in that majority's interests, maybe they need to have a reckoning on a change of government and if unemployment and a few other measures are up the officials lose pensions or something. This is an extremely simplistic suggestion not taking everything into account but some carrot/stick approach like the working calss experiences seems necessary.
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