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More on H-1Bs and Retraining

Taken for Granted
Kelly Krause, AAAS

I recently reported on a 19 March press event at which Scott Corley, executive director of the pro—H-1B lobbying group Compete America, asserted that retraining experienced domestic workers for information technology (IT) posts provides "less value" for companies than employing foreign workers on temporary visas. I learned soon after—from labor force expert Ron Hira of the Rochester Institute of Technology—that many millions of dollars are available to change that value proposition.

On 19 February, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez announced a $150 million program to pay for retraining and job placement for Americans suffering long-term unemployment. "About 20 to 30 grants ranging from $3 million to $10 million would be awarded to programs focused on individual counseling, job-placement assistance and work-based training that facilitate hiring for jobs in which employers currently use foreign workers on H-1B visas," writes Kristen B. Frasch at Human Resource Executive Online.

To pursue a policy of worker replacement today, under the guise of worker shortages, is to assure that in the future those shortages become real.

Even before Perez's announcement, federal job-training grants were available to help workers "obtain or upgrade employment in high-growth industries or economic sectors," and to help companies "reduce their use of skilled foreign professionals permitted to work in the U.S. on a temporary basis under the H-1B visa program," according the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance.

The 19 March event was focused mainly on the IT industry, but pharmaceutical companies have at times pursued similar policies, simultaneously laying off scientists, claiming shortages of skilled workers, and seeking H-1B relief. Laid-off pharma scientists would no doubt benefit from well-conceived retraining, just like their IT peers.

At the same 19 March event, Dartmouth College economist Matthew Slaughter added, in defense of the industry's preference for replacement over retraining, "it's not easy to retrain people." Indeed it isn't easy—but it is essential because the cost of casting aside skilled technology workers, to society and to the workers themselves, is very high.

This is not an issue of the United States versus foreign workers; it's about the abandonment of experienced, skilled staff. In another example, The Boeing Company has announced that some 2000 engineers at its Seattle, Washington facility will be laid off when the company moves their functions to Alabama, Missouri, and South Carolina. The bulk of the affected employees, the company indicates, will not be eligible to apply for jobs at the new facilities.

This is not to argue that companies do not have the right to make business decisions that result in layoffs. It is to argue, rather, that highly skilled and experienced technical workers are a precious national resource. If scientific and technical skills are indeed in short supply, workers that already have these hard-earned skills should be conserved, not discarded, even if conserving them requires retraining them.

Over the long term, it's likely that employers, too, will share the cost of policies that favor replacement over retraining. As we've said many times, young people who are smart enough to become scientists and engineers are also smart enough not to invest many years in training for careers that are likely to end abruptly in what should be their prime earning years. To pursue a policy of worker replacement today, under the guise of worker shortages, is to assure that in the future those shortages become real. The initiatives that Perez announced may be a step in changing this dubious value proposition. Let us hope.