Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A reader's open letter to senators on the SMART Jobs Act

From a reader, an interesting open letter to Congress:
Dear Chemjobber,
I am writing to share with you a letter that I’ve sent off to several US senators, in regards to the SMART Jobs Act recently introduced by Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee. In light of the recent Washington Post article by Brian Vastag, I thought it would be good to share this letter with others (with my personal info removed, though details are in the original).  Hopefully enough senators will have read the article, so it would be good if they heard from individual scientists about our situations, and about how this legislation could have a serious impact on our careers. 
Too many times we chemists think that our voices won’t be heard, or we wait in vain for ACS, or NSF, or the NIH, or some university, or some professor to speak up for us.  I believe that we ought to speak for ourselves.  The more of us that contact the relevant senators about this Act, the more we balance out all the punditry out there that says “We Need More Scientists!!!”
Below are links to contact the main senators on the Judiciary subcommittee that would hold hearings on this Act, along with Sens. Coons and Alexander.  I also encourage people to write to their own US senators.
Sincerely,
J.D.

Senator Chris Coons (D): http://www.coons.senate.gov/contact
Senator Lamar Alexander (R): http://www.alexander.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=Email
Senator Charles Schumer (D): https://www.schumer.senate.gov/Contact/contact_chuck.cfm
Sen. John Cornyn (R): http://www.cornyn.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=ContactForm
Senator Patrick Leahy (D): http://www.leahy.senate.gov/contact
Senator Chuck Grassley (R): http://www.grassley.senate.gov/contact.cfm
Senator Orrin Hatch (R): http://hatch.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/email-orrin
Senator Al Franken (D): http://www.franken.senate.gov/?p=email_al
Dear Senator: 
I am a science professional with a Ph.D. in chemistry and 10+ years of experience in my field.  I am writing to you about the recent introduction of the SMART Jobs Act (S.3192), which would change the law by giving green cards to all international graduate students in STEM fields upon completion of their degrees, once they find employment in this country. 
If you value science as well as scientists already in this country, you should vote for removing the ‘Science’ portion from the ‘STEM’ designation in this proposed legislation.  Speaking of my own profession, our country does not have enough jobs for chemists already here.  Over the past 10 years, there have been thousands of chemists laid off from American chemical and pharmaceutical companies, while these same companies have permanently downsized labs and/or sent research jobs overseas.  This somber situation has recently been profiled in the front page Washington Post article “U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there”, by Brian Vastag, published July 7th, 2012. 
In my own case, the laboratory where I worked at “XYZ Company” closed 2 years ago and was moved to another state; one third of the research staff was laid off, fired, demoted or forced to retire early.  I have been fortunate enough to find another job - at 60% of my former pay.  And I’ve been luckier than many of my colleagues. 
It is because of the above scenario, repeated over and over again, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted only 3.8% job growth for chemists over the next decade, far below the projected 14% growth for all occupations.For us chemists, the automatic green card effort would make the above poor job growth projections even worse.  
The main premise of the SMART Jobs Act is that future scientists from other countries would start new companies and create jobs if allowed to remain here in the US.  It is possible that a few exceptional individuals might indeed do so at some future time.  But the great majority of these new scientists will not be starting companies. They will be competing with those already here for the decreased number of research jobs still available here in this country, making viable science careers in American industry even less attainable than they already are. 
As you discuss this Act with your colleagues and hold hearings, consider the current situation of us chemists, and how many of us are without jobs, or without the decent salaries that we once had.  We need persons such as yourself to make certain that our employment situations do not degrade any further.  And so, I ask that you work to change this proposed legislation to remove the ‘Science’ portion from the ‘STEM’ designation. 
James Doe, Ph.D.
Anytown, USA
 Thoughts?

UPDATE: I forgot the upper portion of the letter, where Dr. Doe explains the reasoning behind the letter. Ack. My fault. Apologies to Dr. Doe. 

30 comments:

  1. This assumes that politicians are capable of critical thinking and appropriate action.

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  2. This letter is about "scientists already in this country", not about "science". It's a fair point that Congress should be worried about American scientist employment in this country, but reality is increasing competition for scientists in the US helps Science overall. Where would we be had Congress banned the foreign scientists who worked on the Manhattan project, or who designed rockets for NASA in the 60s?

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    1. Agree completely, bbooooooya. If the choice is between "giving a science job to a qualified foreigner in the US" vs. "shipping the whole business overseas," the first is preferable for a number of reasons. The more companies that are here and employing scientists, the better.

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  3. Of course the key question here is - will a postdoc count as a full-time employment. If yes, then I agree, it will open the floodgates. However, in this case I assume there are going to be lawsuits. If not, not much will change - jobs are still going to be hard to find, and the bill, as far as I can tell, does not provide any means for getting through the critical juncture - getting hired while on non-immigrant visa, so a foreigner would still have to go through labor certification. But the thing is, I've known many foreign Ph.D students, and every one of them who wanted to stay in this country has found a way.

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  4. Bbooooya (Sorry if I missed a couple of os): Do you really want to compare the vast majority of foreign scientists here with people who worked on the Manhattan Project like Enrico Fermi? We aren't talking about retaining the truly extraordinary talent (hopefully everyone agrees about that) but about giving carte blanche to any foreign student just because he or she finishes a PhD here. That being said, this law may not be as bad as it sounds because many foreign scientists these days face the routine problem that companies won't hire them if they don't have green cards. Thus the qualifier in the SMART act "once they find employment in the country" might still keep them from competing with American scientists.

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  5. bbooooooya, foreign scientists aren't banned. That's not even the issue here. The SMART Jobs Act wants to loosen H1-B Visa restrictions. Foreign scientists will still be able to work and study in the US as they always have been. Those motivated to do so will still be able to apply for resident or citizen status.

    There are qualified and highly trained scientists in the US having much difficulty finding jobs. There is no lack of competition. Loosening H1-B restrictions will not improve the situation. Instead of 200 people applying for every opening, there will suddenly be 500 people applying for every opening. And all will have the same trouble getting past the HR-bots. BUT there will suddenly be that many more scientists out of work.

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  6. People come to where the jobs are. If there are no employments in America, no foreign students would like to stay in the US regardless of how many SMART Jobs Acts are passed . Those people would prefer to return to their home countries or go work in China, India, Singapore or any other parts of the world that desires their skills. Remember, these are knowledgeable and talented professionals that have PhDs and Ms degrees, not just low class citizens from third world countries that just do whatever it takes to stay in the US.

    On the other hands, making it easier for foreign scholars to stay and work in the US would probably bring more opportunities for this country as a whole.

    Also, where do you thing the people that running your jobs in China and India obtain their educations from? If those people stay in the US, pharmaceutical companies would not have shift their R&D away.

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  7. Companies can use the H1-B process to drive down labor costs in this country, or they can just say the heck with it an move to the PRC. Once in the PRC they won't need to worry about pesky details like OSHA or waste disposal.

    The bigger threat is those pesky TN visas they give out to Canadians like jellybeans: no limit, and no paper work......Plus Canadians are naturally better looking, smarter, funnier, and much much more polite.

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    1. H1-B visas are only part of the problem, I think oversized academia that cannot function without importing large numbers of foreign grad students and postdocs to support its current research footprint with cheap and federally subsidized captive workforce is now a much bigger issue. Pharma companies are partnering up with academic medchem groups not because of some tremendous expertise of these groups but because they could tap into cheap labor pool, right here in US. There are serf-like chemists in their 30s and 40s on J visa, many on their second or third postdoc, working for 40 k a year with nominal benefits doing the derivaterei work that pharma farmed out to academia.

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    2. The serf postdocs milkshake described make up about 50% of the chemists at my postdoc institution. Very sad situation.

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    3. @anon July 18th 12:25 - sounds like you're another of us pesky Canadians sneaking down here for work. Of course, I've managed to switch over to a PR card, but I did have three TN's first.

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    4. "sounds like you're another of us pesky Canadians sneaking down here for work. Of course, I've managed to switch over to a PR card, but I did have three TN's first."

      Ditto, though I only used 2 TNs (and then went H1-B route to PR).

      The Americans really need to build a fence (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2043894/U-S-officials-considered-building-fence-northern-Canada-border-criminals.html) to keep the Hosers out, eh.

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    5. I think milkshake hits the nail on the head. The problem goes back further who is hiring scientists. It goes to the way academia is pushing out too many people for the available jobs. This makes me think that perhaps funding agencies can address this issue. CJ highlighted an initiative to track students over time. Yes, I think that's a good step, but funding agencies could also put restrictions on group size of grantees, perhaps insisting that some of the money go to hire lab technicians instead of students and postdocs.

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    6. Americans can also get TN visas to work in Canada. The TN visa is a bit of a downer since it's much easier for employers to keep giving you that than going through a visa that will lead to permanent resident status. Then you're not sure if it's worth it to buy that summer get away villa in Laval if you're not PR, etc... Plus if you want to renew that thing, you have to cross the border and that can be a bit of a hassle. Not so much if you're in Canada though (unless you're in North Alberta).

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    7. "funding agencies could also put restrictions on group size of grantees"

      Depends what the funding agencies purpose is: if it's to regulate the job market for scientists this makes sense. If NIH etc. are in place to foment Science then this type of restriction is a terrible idea.

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    8. I'm not sure I necessarily agree. It will hurt science in the medium to long term if it's seen as a field where you can't get a job.

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    9. I've thought about this and I don't think that fomenting science and cutting down on group size are mutually exclusive. The large group (40-50 people) take up a great deal of resources and yet focus on a relatively small area of research because they are under on PI. How much more research diversity could there be with more smaller independent groups- three, four, or even five instead of one large group? To be sure some efficiency would be lost in what I'll call overhead, but if we take the NIH job to be fomenting science it seems that this would still be beneficial. And it would have the benefit of curbing the mass production of chemists for whom there might not be positions or would allow there to be more PI jobs as larger groups are pared down opening up funding for other professors.

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    10. " I don't think that fomenting science and cutting down on group size are mutually exclusive."

      I'm not certain if they are or aren't. On one hand, big groups tend to get and stay big due to past successes which, presumably, enhances odds of future success. Of course, past success does not equal future success.

      There's also no reason big groups can't be diverse: the Schultz and Whitesides groups, to name 2, could not be described as having a " focus on a relatively small area of research".

      There is no perfect system, but I'm pretty sure over the course of a decade that I'll win more money betting on the Yankees to win the world series that betting on the Padres plus the Brewers plus the Tigers.

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    11. If you give an automatic green card to people who finish the PhD, there will be a driver for all salaries to go up, at least in the short run, due to the fact that now these people have some protection from an employer who can't threaten them with deportation from the country when they lose their job and visa if they don't shut up and work ridiculous hours for a low wage. A friend of mine got threatened that way in his postdoc, and I'd imagine it's at least implied in a lot of industry jobs.

      So, there is that. I'd imagine it's responsible for some sort of dip in salaries if there are a lot of H1-Bs from China and India around.

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  8. It's the import of large numbers of grad students and postdocs that starts the problem off, but then this Act will put the frosting on the cake by streamlining (and expanding) the process for these individuals to receive a green card.

    There appears to me that this Act offers up something to employers as well - it removes some of the uncertainty and expense about whether and when someone will get a green card, and how much it will cost the employer in lawyers fees. It may, though it's not entirely clear, mean that the employer doesn't have to sponsor a person when they apply for the card, since having a advanced STEM degree and a job is all that will be needed to get permanent residency.

    Perhaps I am too cynical in thinking that employers are actually behind the push to get legislation like this passed.

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  9. Writing to politician is a good idea. I can't imagine it would hurt.

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  10. This is a tough one. I have been on "both sides" of this. I went through a layoff and was incredibly fortunate to find a new position after only a years unemployment, albeit by leaving the field. But I also came into the US on an H1b which I since used to get a green card, and ultimately citizenship, and am both grateful for the opportunity to do so, but believe I have contributed to the society here during my stay.

    On the whole, I am against protectionism of this kind. I believe that history has proven such efforts to be misguided and counterproductive. And though it feels instinctively that my lot would be better off with less competition for jobs, and that this would be aided by reducing the talent pool, I just don't think that is the way to go.

    I don't have a solution in return. Perhaps removing direct to consumer advertising. Perhaps reducing medical liability. Perhaps it requires a (politically unpopular) change to the patent/generics world.

    But reducing the talent pool feels too much like the prisoners beating up on each other rather than trying to break out.

    So, respectfully Dr Doe, I decline to join your effort on this one.

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    1. If you have done this then obviously you should know that the current immigration system provides ample opportunities to the talented and capable. It really does not need to be simplified. I hope you understand that if you'll be able to come to this country, get a masters degree (which can be earned in 15 months) and get a GC as a bonus, it will result in massive abuse and new regulations that will end up making the process harder than it is now.

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    2. Actually, I came on an H1b in 2001 when the quota was significantly higher (albeit demand was significantly higher too). And even then I saw that it wasn't an easy ride for some very capable, talented and valuable people, both to get the H1b but more to progress from there to a greencard. I've seen really good people lose their job through no fault of their own, and given days to pack up their lives and leave the country. And even though my ride was comparatively easy, they were a lot of dumb hurdles in the way.

      So, yes, making it simpler seems like a good idea.

      I know that hiring is somewhat capricious, and the sheer volume of unemployed makes it really difficult to sort out the good candidates from the bad ones. But, by and large, expanding the talent pool is ultimately a good thing imo. I don't see it as a zero sum game here, where adding 1M people means that there are then 1M people more unemployed. I know it feels that way sometimes, but I don't think that economics bears that out.

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    3. If by "progress to green card" you mean "convince employer to file on your behalf and foot the bill" then yes, it's going to be difficult, but I know a whole bunch of people who self-petitioned, and they all got approved. In fact the only scientist I know who left against his wish was a person who crashed his car into a police cruiser, driving on a suspended license, drunk both times.

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  11. BioBrit San Diego -

    Let's turn things around - How readily can an American get the European equivalent of an H1-B visa, then permanent residency and even citizenship in a European country with a decent economy? I'm unaware of this even being a viable option. And how likely are European companies to hire Americans for the long term?

    I think that for those of us here, things have been too much of a 'one-way' street, with the flow of scientists into this country, but with little avenue for Americans to go and work in other countries on a permanent basis. If things were more balanced, the the visa/green card issue would be less worrisome.

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    1. I believe Germany introduced a program similar to a green card for highly qualified professionals a while ago. Lots of non-German nationals take advantage of it and are eligible for German citizenship afterwards. The problem is Americans want to stay in America, and for Germany you need to know a bit of German. I think it's a lot more common in the UK to see Americans who stayed there on a permanent job, but I haven't been there, and I haven't seen the queen and har damn dundees, so I don't know for sure.

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    2. I don't honestly know - having never had to try. But that is part of why I don't think protectionism works - it leads to a tit for tat and makes it difficult to maintain a moral high ground. Plus, generally imo, allowing highly educated and talented people an avenue in only benefits everyone. Personally I believe that allowing less talented and educated people in also benefits everyone - most studies show a net gain in GDP from the immigration of undocumented menial workers too.

      There are enough Americans and other foreign nationals working in the UK, and throughout Europe, that I think (with the possible exception of CH) that it is pretty straightforward.

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  12. Well, for US citizens who studied for a PhD in the UK, it is almost certain that you'd qualify for a Tier 2 post study work visa, which would allow you to stay in the UK for up to 2 years to find work - the rules changed recently making it a bit more difficult to be certain. After 5 years, you'd automatically qualify for residency, giving you access to all 27 EU member states.

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