Friday, August 7, 2015

A couple of pieces on the "skills gap"

Alice Tornquist, a Washington lobbyist for the high-tech firm Qualcomm, took the stage at a recent Qualcomm-underwritten conference to remind her audience that companies like hers face a dire shortage of university graduates in engineering. The urgent remedy she advocated was to raise the cap on visas for foreign-born engineers. 
"Although our industry and other high-tech industries have grown exponentially," Tornquist said, "our immigration system has failed to keep pace." The nation's outdated limits and "convoluted green-card process," she said, had left firms like hers "hampered in hiring the talent that they need."

What Tornquist didn't mention was that Qualcomm may then have had more engineers than it needed: Only a few weeks after her June 2 talk, the San Diego company announced that it would cut its workforce, of whom two-thirds are engineers, by 15%, or nearly 5,000 people. 
The mismatch between Qualcomm's plea to import more high-tech workers and its efforts to downsize its existing payroll hints at the phoniness of the high-tech sector's persistent claim of a "shortage" of U.S. graduates in the "STEM" disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics....
Actions speak louder than words.

Also, an interesting piece from the Boston Globe's David Scharfenberg on the "skills gap":
But critics insist there is a superficiality to those surveys. Ask any chief executive if he has trouble finding workers, and he will say yes. 
MIT labor economist Paul Osterman and then-doctoral candidate Andrew Weaver conducted a more detailed survey of manufacturers in 2012 and 2013 and found most were seeking basic skills: reading a simple manual, adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. And while a substantial minority, 38 percent, sought more advanced math skills for their core manufacturing jobs, most cited disciplines offered at a decent high school — algebra, geometry, trigonometry. 
Weaver noted that employers, for the most part, are simply not demanding the high-level talents that the skills gap rhetoric would suggest. And policy makers err, he said, when they argue workers are falling behind. “The standard story that you hear a lot is ‘American workers just aren’t prepared for the 21st century . . . [they] just haven’t gotten the memo that they need to get a bunch more education,’ ” he said. The reality, he added, is that workers are, by and large, developing the skills they need to fill the available jobs. 
And when Osterman and Weaver asked managers the proof-in-the-pudding question — do you have any long-term vacancies? — more than three-quarters said no. 
Back at his humming Oxford factory, Kenneth Mandile reported no long-term vacancies of his own when the Globe visited. And after a lengthy chat in a small conference room off the factory floor, it was clear his story did not quite match the skills gap narrative. His difficulty finding workers who can operate the firm’s Swiss screw machines is not the result of some broad, new mismatch between 21st-century jobs and the skills of the workforce. It is, instead, a niche problem that goes back decades. 
These days, Mandile says, his chief concern is not technical skills; he can teach those in-house. It’s finding workers with a good attitude and a good work ethic. The problem, he suggests, is not mechanical, it’s cultural. And that may be harder to fix. 
I hadn't heard of the Osterman/Weaver study; I'll have to look it up. Good stuff, more soon.  

37 comments:

  1. The "skills gap" is the same it always has been... We want workers to take less pay and quit complaining.

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  2. "It’s finding workers with a good attitude and a good work ethic. The problem, he suggests, is not mechanical, it’s cultural."

    Possibly this is true, but based on my experience I don't think it is true in the context it comes up in. I think the problem in part is the HR culture and its total inability to make decisions not based on little check boxes, "best practices" myths and memes about what everybody else does. Part of the problem is contemporary culture and its incapacity (frequently and unduly challenged in other contexts) for inclusivity - where anyone can be "voted off the island" and the decision is necessarily right merely by virtue of having been made. Finally, a nation does not develop an excellent workforce by routinely dicking over half of its brightest and hardest working people (through exorbitant tuition charges, failure to employ recent graduates, excessive work-related immigration, failure to consider testing or skills-based interviews, and ignoring flagrant violations of employment-related law).

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    1. I certainly believe it is cultural. But it is the poor culture of owners and managers of the companies.

      Many years ago when I was unemployed (MS in Science), I read an editorial in a local paper from the president of a company that supplied machine parts to Boeing. They complained that they could not get applicants with sufficient skills to even apply (they were perfectly willing to train and claimed they paid decently/well). A couple of days later I handed my resume to the owner of the company who looked it over and then stated "why would you want to work here?" Apparently they rejected me even though I had the skills they wanted because I didn't fit into some specific "box" but it was nice to make the point about the editorial in person...

      It's pretty clear that owners and managers of many, if not most companies, cannot evaluate for the skills that they claim to seek.

      -MV

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  3. I assume when people complain about work ethic, they mean that they can't find people willing to work as hard as they like for the money they want to pay and with no security. Why do they assume that their workers don't want what they do, or that they're going to continue to work as if it were available to them when it does not seem to be?

    Diligence as a quality is pretty undervalued - everyone seems to assume that diligent work (that doesn't require significant education or training) can be outsourced or done more cheaply. You get what you pay for.

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  4. The idea that we need graduates from other countries IMMEDIATELY also seems like a bold-face lie on it's face. One, you could encourage high school students into STEM and get employees in only four years, as opposed to going through congress, importing people, and readjusting them to American standards. How is that not faster? Two, aren't we supposed to be the biggest suppliers of higher education, at the highest quality? Then why do we need to lower ourselves to scrape up people from the University of Pune?

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    1. First, wouldn't that be more like 6-8 years? High-school + 2 years of college at a minimum?

      The answers are feel-good foreign relations and party politics.

      I think it was Will Rogers (who as a groundbreaking promoter of minority opportunities in cinema is now branded as a stereotyping racist) who said, "Americans are happy and willing to help any people other than their own."

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    2. The problem is colleges/universities and the need for cheap labor or tuition. At the 2-year community college I'm an adjunct at, which is in a fair amount of financial trouble, they are thinking of advertising for students throughout the world. If the students took their education back with them to help their own countries that would be great but the immigrants tend to want to stay here and it makes things even more competitive for the native locals that the school proudly trains and brags about for the few jobs available. Schools are very short sighted and dont think about the consequences of bringing all this cheap labor here, just as long as they get they need- labor and tuition. No different than any other American buisness.

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    3. That's been true ever since I was in grad school, and that was a long time ago.

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    4. I get a chuckle out of Paul Brachner's ad on his site for students for St. Louis U graduate Chem program. Same deal. Brachners' a great guy Im sure, but will ignore or rationalize the reality (little chance of a Chem PhD from STL getting a decent job) to get cheap labor for their programs. Its the schools.

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    5. I guess I was counting from someone just going into college picking a major. Depends on their background, I suppose. I know the tech industry moves "fast" but srsly, that isn't fast enough?

      When I lived in the East Bay a few years ago I noticed a lot of people were there already, while the South Bay was already coming up with this "we need to import another hundred thousand people here NOW" BS. Were the folks in Oakland unemployable? Untrainable? Sounded a little... racist to me.

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    6. The US employed 24.71 million foreign-born workers in July 2015, according to the BLS, which also calculated that 14,056,000 immigrants did not participate in the labor force that month. Current immigration processing includes 1 million "legal pathway" immigrants, 700,000 work-visa immigrants, and 1.24 million work-permit approvals (2014) per year, for a total of over 2.9 million annually.

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    7. You are kind of conflating several things there. The 1 million figure is people who obtain green cards and come to the US permanantly (generally). Discounting illegal immigration, this is our net population growth via immigration. The 700k figure is temporary visas. What you are forgetting is that temporary visas from the last few years are expiring at approximately the same pace. So there is little or no net change here.

      The 1.24 million figure is simply double counting. When people come to the US with work-visas or green-card bound visa (mostly family members), then they often apply for a work permit. Your 1240k is just a subset of the earlier 1700k, basically comprising the working age adults in that group.

      For example, my wife came to the US on a K1 fiancee visa, and filed for a work permit concurrently with her green card application. This is the normal process flow in cases like hers. You'd be counting her twice.



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    8. @NMH: I'm sure Bracher's a good enough guy but he's complaining about $300 textbooks while his school charges $30,000/year. Kind of missing the big picture, there.

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    9. Not so. The 700,000 are hypothetically (and legally) temporary visas. In the past these have been extended beyond the six-year maximum previously mandated by law. Now we have record rates of visa overstays, and the "temporary" aspect of these visas is not enforced - hence they effectively have no expiration date. Consequently there is in fact a net accretion from year to year.

      Even the pro-immigration Wall Street Journal admits there is an issue with visa overstays generally:
      http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323916304578404960101110032

      The 1.24 million for FY 2014 consists of extra work permits not provided by traditional legal immigration or work visa programs. They are not green-card-related EADs. These have been awarded to illegal immigrants under DACA status, Temporary Protected Status immigrants, spouses and unmarried children of work visa holders (note- not the visa holders themselves), categories of foreign students, applicants for deportation suspension, applicants for 'status adjustment,' parolees, asylum seekers and refugees. In some instances, but certainly not all, these have immigration applications pending, but not yet approved. In all, there are some 53 or so categories that make up this group.

      These include categories of immigrants for which work authorizations were never intended to be granted, and the numbers are well in excess of legally established limits. The 7.4 million additional work permits issued since 2009 constitute a parallel immigration system operating beyond the authority of Congress.

      The numbers come from USCIS.

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    10. @ bad wolf - Are you saying Bracher can't see the forest for the re-purposed trees?

      In all fairness, he doesn't have to pay tuition, so it's probably mostly off his radar.

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    11. http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/ois_yb_2013_0.pdf

      Here are USCIS's tables. On page 65, where they discuss I-94 breakdowns, I see a spike in the numbers from 2009 to 2010 for temporary workers, intercompany transfers, and investors (among others), and then pretty close to flat-line since. I can't see your wsj article due to the paywall, but it doesn't seem consistent with the USCIS data I am seeing. Is there some other document or page I should be looking at? I don't see anything about the net accretion of those on temporary visas.

      Net accretion of illegal immigrants has been widely reported at near zero for the last few years, and the number of green cards has been more or less steady for 25 years at a million per year, give or take.

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    12. @Anon 8:00pm: haha, yes, that's well put. Yes, it's the sort of an idea an undergrad or grad student has, but someone paying the whole bill might notice that this component was essentially a rounding error. (Perhaps not unlike the public that thinks 'foreign aid' is more than 1% of the federal budget?) It is funny that he's willing to throw the publishing industry (and professionals) out but his contributions are, of course, inviolate.

      But anyway, my previous comment was roundly ignored on Chembark so i shouldn't start cross-posting for support.

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    13. @Chad -
      The WSJ article may be accessible to you by search, try "H-1B visa overstay statistics." I can read the whole thing that way, whereas clicking on the link brings up the paywall.

      Alternately, you can try this Washington Examiner article:

      http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/no-our-immigration-system-is-not-broken/article/2552534

      The nice thing about the Washington Examiner article is that it makes explicit that the 1 million green cards are not to be conflated with the 700,000 temporary worker visas, and also mentions the 40% visa overstay rate. Assuming that the 40% rate roughly applies across the board to 700,000 annual temporary worker visas, that yields an extra 280,000 uncounted illegal immigrants per year arriving through temporary worker visas alone. There are laws against this - there is no enforcement. That's why there is accretion in this category each year. I'd press for more specific statistics on overstay, but not surprisingly DHS neither wants to enforce immigration law nor really wants us to know about this, so overstay rates by visa category are not yet available.

      Finally, the table that you cite in the 2013 USCIS report (Non-Immigrant Admissions by Class of Admission) is largely irrelevant to the 1.24 million EADs. It's legal admissions, not work permits - apples and oranges.
      First and most obviously, illegals aren't filling out 1-94s for admission, and these are the majority of the beneficiaries of the government's newfound largesse in issuing work permits. There is no row for DACA. There would appear to be no rows for illegal, unqualified, or initially determined ineligible immigrants. There isn't even an estimate for illegal entries (except maybe under "Transit Aliens," 'Other," and "Unknown," and I can tell you that those figures in no way reflect the amount of illegal immigration the US receives).
      Second, the table in question by definition excludes permanent and pre-permanent immigrant admission categories.

      http://cis.org/government-data-reveal-millions-of-new-work-permits

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    14. Even Mexico's former ambassador to the US, Arturo Sarukhan publicly admitted that the US has 30 million illegal immigrants, in contrast with the frequently used (and probably far too small) estimate of 11 million that's been used by the US government as damage control for years.

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  5. I would like to get acquainted with a Swiss screw machine but it's probably not the kind that K. Mandile has in mind. ;)

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  6. One of the largest problems we have where I work (energy utility) is finding young people who can pass the urine test and show up on time each day.

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    1. Being able to read the time on your phone is STEM. Didn't you know that?

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  7. Unfortunately, Osterman and Weaver are not being heard by nearly enough people in the world at large (or are willfully ignored). I recently happened into a conversation with a high school counselor and we came upon STEM education. I tried to explain that not all STEM letters are facing shortages. She seemed to be shocked and skeptical. The fact that the very people who are guiding and educating our youth cannot accept this notion disturbs me a great deal. It also suggests the battle of messaging is being controlled by the corporate types.

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  8. ...and the government.

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  9. The current STEM problem began October 4, 1957 with the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. Fearing that the Soviet educational system was superior to that of the US (and that the red planet might become the Red planet), Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958.

    This act funded math and science programs and provided graduate fellowships to help produce more professors.

    It worked. The US was first to put men on the moon. Then other interests, such as the Kardashians, eclipsed space. But the labs the NDEA helped build and the faculty it helped create are still there and need undergrads and grad students to continue to function. Some of those students will get rewarding jobs in their fields, like some contestants will become American Idols.

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    1. I suspect you are right - also, this is about the time that education in the US was put on an ongoing "crisis"/"emergency" basis which ensured a steadily increasing flow of funds - and which never seemed to come to an end or get resolved.

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    2. "The US was first to put men on the moon. Then other interests, such as the Kardashians, eclipsed space."

      Actually this was just Kim Kardashian's posterior. But we can still see h-Uranus. Probably more than most of us really want.

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  10. There is no skills gap and everyone I've talked to has said that lab competencies are easy enough to train. Everyone who's hiring or contracting workforce development is looking for "soft skills". Everyone is seeking writing, speaking, presentation, networking, and organizational skills.

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    1. ...and yet, they don't hire for these skills. These are just excuses to discard candidates without seeing what they can actually do.

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    2. ...on an arbitrary basis, may I add.

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  11. Good attitude and good work ethic. I worry that will be difficult to find as long as economic prospects for millennials compare poorly to those of the boomers. Why work hard, when your hard work won't give you the quality of life that your childhood implied you would obtain (with said hard work)?

    This highlights another reason why immigrants are superior: They didn't grow up as children of successful boomers, but rather in relatively poorer conditions. Thus the opportunities available today still seem great!

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    1. What do you mean "quality of life," I'm talking about not getting opportunity #1.

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  12. I largely agree that immigrants can appear superior because they may be willing to work harder then native americans. What is really bad, though, ia when you have american managers (academic advisors, for example) that employee immigrants and americans who exploit the situation and become lazy themselves, because they can. Even worse is when you have an immigrant get promoted to some kind of hard money, management position and then they in turn get lazy. Not good for the people on non-tenured, soft money people to see. Too much of this going on where I am at.

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  13. This is fairly typical of what I saw in grad school on a larger scale than I thought would have been tolerated. Not only was it tolerated, it was encouraged.
    It ensured that the department I was in was almost entirely composed of international students. The citizens were all run out.

    The Plagiarism Hunter - Chronicle of Higher Education

    http://www.indiana.edu/~acoustic/s685/plagerism-ohioU.htm

    Plagiarism a Persistent Problem on Campuses - Columbus Dispatch

    http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2010/09/15/plagiarism-a-persistent-problem-on-campuses.html

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  14. Of the ACS members who read this blog, how many of you would like to see a petition, e.g. through change.org, to change the ACS bylaws? The topic of the petition would be open to discussion. The overall goal of such a petition would be to institute changes within the organization for it to become a member-centered one. However, it would be necessary to use your real names in signing a petition.

    Thanks

    Still Anonymous for the Time Being (SATB)

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    1. I wish you success in this endeavor. Perhaps, if you succeed, I will rejoin ACS

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    2. Dear Anon 11:45,

      There are a number of phrases which can be used to interpret your comment. They all amount to the same thing, namely that you are not willing to stick your neck out, but are happy to reap the benefits of others who are willing to step up to the plate.

      SATB

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