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Are Foreign Guest Workers Preferable to Retraining?

CREDIT: Frank Flack (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Retraining existing workers produces "less value" for employers than hiring guest workers from abroad, a high-tech industry representative said during a 19 March media conference call. Speaking for Compete America—a coalition of companies, universities, and trade associations that supports raising H-1B visa quotas—Scott Corley, the group's executive director, made that statement in answer to a question from this reporter about why, if companies are so short of talent, they do not offer retraining to their experienced employees rather than laying them off.

The main point of Corley's press event was a claim that each new H-1B visa worker leads to the creation of four additional jobs. Hence, visa restrictions, he argued, are inhibiting the creation of jobs for Americans. The basis for this claim, however, has been disputed by statistical experts. Corley did not dispute that older workers were being laid off. "It's not easy to retrain people," Corley said, quoted by Patrick Thibodeau of Computerworld, and "the further you get away from your education the less knowledge you have of the new technologies, and technology is always moving forward."

"It's not easy to retrain people." —Scott Corley

Thibodeau asked about the American workers older than 35 who must train their foreign replacements before being separated from their jobs. Creating and destroying jobs "is a permanent feature of how economic growth happens," said economist Matthew Slaughter of Dartmouth College, a presenter at the press conference, again quoted in Thibodeau's report.

Corley's and Slaughter's answers typify the attitude described in Peter Cappelli's important 2012 book Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It. As we reported when it was published, Cappelli faults companies' rigid hiring practices and failure to provide adequate training for creating the false perception of a skills shortage. Training of employees used to be widespread in industry, Cappelli told Science Careers then, but many companies have stopped doing it altogether.

At present, company executives appear to favor a system in which highly trained technical personnel are an ever-available and ever-disposable resource, to be hired when they're young and discarded when they are judged obsolete—often before age 40—and replaced by young, temporary workers from overseas. What would such a system portend for the future of the American scientific and technical workforce, and talented young Americans choosing careers?

As we noted recently, this trend appears to be spreading to the pharmaceutical industry. When I posed a similar question at a pharmaceutical industry event in January—I asked how employers could claim a talent shortage while laying off large numbers of highly skilled workers—neither John Castellani, president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA)—the main industry lobbying group—nor John Lechleiter, president and CEO of Eli Lilly and Company, gave an answer that made much sense, either to me or to others.

The PhRMA event was not designed to push for more guest worker visas; it was aimed, rather, at promoting better science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for American kids. Corporate executives apparently expect America's most talented young people to commit themselves to the long and expensive process of becoming scientists or engineers so that they can pursue careers that are likely to end in their late 30s or early 40s, after a decade or so of working for employers who dump them in favor of guest workers as soon as what they studied in college or graduate school gets a bit out of date.

Why would a student who is bright enough to be a scientist or an engineer make such a foolish choice? Surely they would be better off training for jobs that would either make them rich before they age out (as in finance) or could not easily be filled by foreign replacements on short-term visas (medicine, perhaps).

There are reasons to doubt that the workforce policies advocated by Compete America are sound, even for the companies that appear to believe in them, even in the short term. Treating your brain trust as a disposable resource cannot possibly be a good idea in an industry that requires innovation for its continued existence. But these organizations clearly think it is a good idea, and will use their considerable influence to win lawmakers and policymakers over to their position.

It is up to those lawmakers and policymakers—and to anyone who cares about America's scientific, technical, and economic future—to consider whether such policies are consistent with the broader interests of society. It is no longer a question of whether we should allow skilled foreign workers to displace skilled Americans. The basic question now is whether we can abide a system in which our top companies view knowledge workers as disposable, no matter where they're from.

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