The former governor of Pennsylvania on Sunday repeated an oft-made claim about high-skilled, foreign guest workers — that they are needed to fill jobs Americans can’t do.
Ed Rendell, who is also one of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s biggest boosters, made his comments on C-SPAN in response to a caller’s question about foreign workers. Rendell said underperforming schools do not produce enough people qualified for science, technology, engineering, and math jobs. So companies have to turn to the H-1B visa, which allows foreigners to come to the United States for up to six years, he said.
“They take jobs that Americans should be doing, but the problem is, it’s not the H-1B visa’s fault.”
“They take jobs that Americans should be doing, but the problem is, it’s not the H-1B visa’s fault,” he said. “It’s the American educational system’s fault because our kids aren’t educated enough in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas — places like that. Our kids cannot fill those jobs. And if we had a better educational system, they could, and we would not need to import.”
But experts who have studied the economy’s STEM needs said there is no evidence of a worker shortage in most fields.
“The governor is just flat-out wrong,” said Ron Hira, a Howard University professor who has testified before Congress on the issue.
The United States places a cap on H-1B visas of 85,000 a year for most employers but also allows an additional 30,000 visas for foreigners who work for universities or affiliated research institutions. The government does not track how many people are in the United States at one time, but Hira pegged the estimate at about 65,000.
Clinton has in the past supported raising the cap on H-1B visas and earlier this year said foreign students who attain advanced degrees in STEM fields from American universities should automatically get green cards. Her running mate, Tim Kaine, co-sponsored legislation that would expand visas for trained professionals, many of whom have the skills needed to fill high-demand openings in the technology sector.
Hira said American companies primarily use the H-1B visa to keep wages down, not to import workers with specialized skills. He said the program does not require companies in many cases to try to find American workers who make a showing that the needed skills do not exist in the domestic workforce, he said. He said that since the employers control the visas, the foreign guest workers cannot easily switch jobs, inviting abuses by companies.
Hira pointed to Southern California Edison, which drew widespread attention last year by replacing American workers with temporary workers on H-1B visas. Information provided by the company indicated that the fired American employees — who were forced to train their replacements as a condition of severance — made an average of $110,000 a year, while the foreigners’ earnings were in the range of $65,000 to $70,000.
The case is typical, Hira said, adding that companies can realize about a 40 percent savings by switching to employees on guest worker visas.
[lz_table title=”STEM Worker Shortage?” source=”Center for Immigration Studies”]Immigrants with STEM degrees are more likely to work in STEM than U.S.-born Americans.
“Most of the H-1B workers coming in are doing jobs Americans already are doing, so they have the skills, or could easily do the jobs,” he said. “There’s strong financial reasons why you would want to hire H-1B visa workers.”
Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said there are about 12.1 million Americans with STEM degrees but only about 5.3 million STEM jobs. A report Camarota authored concluded that there has been no sharp rise in salaries since 2000 in most STEM occupations, which would indicate a skills shortage.
“There’s absolutely no evidence of it from anyone who’s looked for it,” he said.
Camarota said there are about 1.6 million people employed in STEM jobs who do not have STEM degrees, leaving about 8.4 million people with STEM degrees who are not working in their fields. He said American colleges and universities graduate far more STEM graduates than there are jobs for them to work.
He said the notion that the U.S. educational system is not producing enough skilled and educated workers “comes partly from a misreading of the comparison of international [student] test scores.” Even if the United States graduates a smaller percentage of students with STEM degrees than other countries, he said, it still produces more than enough workers to fill the open positions.
So where does the notion of a STEM worker shortage come from? Camarota said politicians either genuinely believe it or are trying to curry favor with corporate interests.
“Some of it is self-interest,” he said. “Companies that like those workers, they like the Democrats just like they like the Republicans.”
Hira noted that on the C-SPAN show, it was Rendell, himself who raised the issue of H-1B visas.
“Rendell seemed to understand the program,” he said, adding that the supposed high-skilled worker shortage is a “talking point” of industry. “What’s sad is that [politicians] are blaming the victims.”