Aid to IT Workers Displaced by H-1B Helps Big Tech Instead


November 20, 2020

By Dale L. Wilcox

Recently, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced the creation of the “H-1B One Workforce” apprenticeship program designed to help more Americans enter industries frequently occupied by H-1B visa-holders. According to the agency’s press release, the program would fund “training for middle- to high-skilled H-1B occupations within key sectors in the U.S. economy, including information technology and cyber security, advanced manufacturing and transportation…” The $150 million-dollar program, we are told, is intended “to upskill the present workforce and train a new generation of workers to grow the future workforce…”

Sounds good for U.S. workers, it would seem, especially given the present state of our COVID-crippled economy. Not exactly. Like a lot of what’s traditionally come out of the H-1B-managing agencies, it is the usual suspects who look to be the real beneficiaries here.

Details are still sparse, but plenty of red flags present themselves in the new announcement. To start, the H-1B program channels the large majority of its foreign workers into the IT industry, not transportation or advanced manufacturing. This same problem arose last year when then-secretary Alex Acosta proposed an iteration of the program that included health care training; another industry not affected by H-1B workers.

So, taxpayer-funds will be going to industries without an H-1B problem. Not a giant public-policy mismatch, but one that’s glaring enough error to question whether helping H-1B displacement is truly the motivation here.

Further, apprenticeships are meant to teach new skills to less well-off young people and are almost always geared toward the trades, not IT. So, it is young, high school grads who will be benefiting here; not the recent college grads and veteran tech-workers that get pushed out by the H-1B and which DOL’s new program is ostensibly designed to help.

Being rarely qualified for IT work, high school grads are not a good fit for the type of job opening that H-1Bs fill. For instance, when the Obama Administration created a West Virginia-based initiative designed to supply IT education to high school grads, the results were essentially zero. The allotted funds would have been better utilized had they been applied towards retraining the same young people in, for instance, advanced manufacturing.

So, non-IT American workers unaffected by the H-1B will get the most benefit from the new program and all we have here is a misnomer. Not quite. It’s more serious than that. To the extent the program fails in its design to help the proclaimed worker-shortage in IT, it helps the key narrative of industry participants that there actually is such a shortage when there is none. As UC Davis computer science professor and seasoned Big Tech-critic Norm Matloff recently said about the new announcement: “Worst of all [about it] is the implied message that we have a tech labor shortage in the first place, which no study (other than industry-sponsored ones) has ever found.”

IT labor assistance programs actually have a long pedigree. They go back to when the H-1B got its first expansion after it was created in 1990. As part of that effort, Congress demanded from industry players some sort of retraining measure to ensure Americans could eventually re-join H-1B industries. That, however, was way back in 1998, a pretty long time for there to be a shortage in any market.

So, while DOL’s new effort might make the general working public feel good, these sorts of retraining programs only perpetuate the narrative that there is an IT labor shortage. This amounts to little more than a PR-benefit seemingly designed for Big Tech. Matloff is right about the nonexistent IT-worker shortage. The U.S. has plenty of them. For instance, minority IT grads apparently far exceed their numbers in Silicon Valley and tech hubs elsewhere.

There is yet another potential mismatch problem with the new announcement. As Matloff points out, workers seem to be promised “modern skills through relatively short-term training programs”, however, the jobs which H-1B-visa holders take up generally require a bachelor’s degree—although certainly not one from a top school; not even a middling one. With this timing mismatch, therefore, it’s difficult to see how DOL’s new program could effectively fill those jobs with ”retrained’ American apprentices.” They simply won’t be fully qualified.

But, again, this likely isn’t the point. Big Tech wants foreign workers, not U.S. ones, because their jobs are tied to their visa. Such guaranteed pliancy is coveted by the industry. They’ve even admitted as much.

Big Tech also wants to avoid U.S. workers because they are generally older. Foreign, mostly Indian, H-1B-holders are younger, and younger workers are always less expensive.

As already noted, it is certainly high time for DOL to first evaluate the way it approaches retraining programs before it pushes forward with the same old, same old. We’ve heard about the H-1B’s displacement and wage-levelling effects on the IT industry going all the way back to the 1990s. A working paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research still finds these dispossessing effects occurring. For instance, it found no broad offsetting benefits to the program nor that it fills real American tech-sector shortages as intended. It suggests in sum that the program’s basically a handout to the trillion-dollar tech industry.

The best restitution to affected U.S. IT workers, therefore, might be to scale the H-1B program back or eliminate it entirely. Oddly enough, right after this program was launched, DOL, along with DHS, announced regulatory reforms to the H-1B that are the most extensive and worker-friendly we’ve ever seen. Even more reason perhaps to remove the H-1B pretense from DOL’s new grant announcement.

Dale L. Wilcox is executive director and general counsel at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of mass migration.

Also published at: Dale L. Wilcox, Aid to IT Workers Displaced by H-1B Helps Big Tech Instead, American Thinker, November 21, 2020.

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