Sunday, July 27, 2008

Checking it out

One of the more invaluable resources in keeping up with the various machinations surrounding H-1B visas is the Job Destruction Newsletter, which can be subscribed to at Whatever you may think of this visa program (and the others with similar goals), which purportedly brings in the best and brightest to take jobs which American companies simply cannot find Americans to take (and each of the statements in the preceding clause is arguable, as I and many others have pointed out), the JDN chronicles the Congressional maneuverings to do the bidding of their corporate masters and the roll-over-and-play-dead media. Even if you are not 100% against the program, reading the JDN regularly, and critically, will make you think seriously about the vast mistruths that surround this issue.

The most recent JDN (#1894) has links to eight different articles. Each of them seems to cite established fact, that Americans aren't getting the degrees that business needs, probably because they're too stupid, so we desperately need to allow more foreign worker to take those jobs. Of course, the simple economic implication that would seem to follow from this situation is that existing technical workers should be in huge demand, with massive salaries and bonuses - that we haven't seen this should be seen as a problem, but not by our press corps. By the way, you will note that the focus is always on the lack of young people going into these fields; it is extremely rare for anyone to mention the large number of experienced people who are unemployed or underemployed - that simply doesn't fit the narrative.

I could write about each of the stories, but I'll just take #1 and analyze it using my experience and years in the field. Let's see what we come up with.

The story comes from the May 2, 2008 Baltimore Sun, and is titled, "Long wait for scarce visas: High-tech American employers, foreign workers in suspense." It promises, based on the title, to be yet another lament from employers who desperately need H-1B visas and cannot get them, thus crippling their business prospects.

And that's exactly what it is. As we know from Journalism 101, a reporter cannot tell a story about a halfway complex issue without particularizing it, so we'll undoubtedly be treated to some poor schnook who is hamstrung by his inability to hire foreign workers. This reporter, Kelly Brewington, has found one Shibu Jose, who has a software consulting company in Ellicott City, Maryland. I'm already a bit suspicious, because Ellicott City is a suburb of Baltimore and perhaps 40 miles from Washington, DC, and there's a whole lot of software talent in that area. Shibu might have to pay a little extra to attract some of that talent, but I would be very surprised if he's doing anything that is so unusual that there is no one to do it - I'll keep an open mind. Let's read:
Shibu Jose has placed ad after ad in area newspapers and on Web sites seeking tech-savvy workers for his Ellicott City software consulting company.

But the resumes he receives are thin. Too often, applicants lack fluency in the complex software-speak he needs to keep his business competitive.

So, like tens of thousands of employers nationwide, he seeks foreign talent through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' visa program for highly skilled professionals. And like his fellow employers, he waits.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service makes 65,000 such visas available each April. That's about half the allocation of five years ago, and for each of the past five years demand for the program, H-1B, has vastly outstripped supply.
Hmm, this does sound tragic, poor Shibu.

The article cites the statistics about the demand, companies have to import talent, Bill Gates says we need more visas (I've written about Mr. Gates' testimony before, for example, here). After six paragraphs of pain, there is a one-paragraph nod to the critics, but it is a brief respite before we return to our friend Shibu:
For Jose, the H-1B debate is a question of simple business competition. Without the visas, his company cannot thrive, he said.

With 15 years of software engineering experience under his belt working for such giants as IBM and Lockheed Martin, Jose decided in 2006 to start his firm, Saxon Infotech Inc.

Seven of Jose's staff of 12 are from India or Sri Lanka, hired through the H-1B program. Jose said he has little choice but to cast a global net to find the brightest candidates in such a highly specialized field.

"The problem with this industry is that there are tons of computer languages; you cannot master everything," he said. "So companies are looking for particular experience. And the question becomes, 'Where do I find these people?' This is the toughest part."

Although he has had luck with the visa program in the past, he said he worries that the program has become so swamped with requests that winning the lottery might be nearly impossible.

"If I am relying on this rate to grow my business, I might have better luck playing the Maryland Lottery," he said.
[Let's take a brief time-out and think about what this says to Shibu's existing clients - is he really trying to send the message that he's struggling, that he "cannot thrive"?]

There's more in this article, with the usual stories of foreign students desperate to stay, a quote from an Oracle lobbyist who favors more immigrants, a little more from the other side stating that multinational corporations are benefiting from cheap labor, not employing Americans, and that the visas are stepping stones to green cards. In other words, it's almost boilerplate journalism, but the reader is certainly left with the impression that America needs to up those visa caps or risk being left behind. (There is, naturally, no mention made of the fact that 4 of the top 5 H-1B visa-receiving companies are Indian outsourcing companies, which, somehow, seems relevant.)

But I want to focus on the plight of dear, sad Shibu, who just can't find the specialized workers he needs without going outside the country, even though he has managed to score seven of these precious visas already.

So let's turn to Saxon Infotech and see what we can see.

We begin with an ugly web page, with what apparently is their slogan floating around the screen: To provide quality Software Consulting Services to the Data Processing industry, we specialize in implementing complex assignments efficiently.

This is a bit troubling. The English is more than a bit odd, and the use of the term "Data Processing" is a bit out-of-date, but we'll move along.

There are a couple of boxes with Profile, and News & Events. News & Events seems to have a list of sales they've made, one to Northrop Grumman to provide IT consultants, the other to TEK systems, an IT staffing firm, to provide technical consultants. So Saxon is a pretty standard body shop, it appears, allowing their clients to outsource some part of their business (in the case of TEKsystems [by the way, they seem to favor the one-word spelling; Shibu might want to fix that], it seems to be double outsourcing).

Let's move over and expand the Profile box to get the whole picture (it seems there's some confusion over whether this is Profile or Company, but I'll let Shibu fix that too). Let me quote the whole thing so you can get a complete picture:
Saxon Infotech is built on the assumption that the management of information technology for business is like legal advice or accounting, in that it is not inherently a do-it-yourself prospect, and requires outside expertise to install and implement it. Smart business people need to find quality vendors of reliable professionals, hardware, software, service, and support. They need to use these quality vendors as they use their other professional service suppliers: as trusted allies.

Saxon Infotech intends to be such a solution provider. We will serve our clients as trusted allies, providing them with the loyalty of a business partner and the economics of an outside vendor and Service providers. We want to make sure that our clients have what they need to run their businesses as well as possible, with maximum efficiency and reliability. Many of our information applications and services will be mission critical, so we will give our clients the assurance that we will be there when they need us.

Our Business mission is to provide world class products and services in the field of information technology with special emphasis on software development, Consultancy, Training, Research and Merchandising.
With strong faith, based on the fact that human development is the worthiest of all the goals of civilization, we believe in continuous growth and development of skills, abilities of our personnel. Also to provide an equal opportunity environment that necessities equal participation, we intended to inspire independent thoughts. Innovation and personal development.

Growth through profitability is the philosophy that guides our work. Thus we intended building an organization of international repute providing innovative and high quality customized solutions to suit our customer needs. An environment that breeds enthusiasm trust and welfare....."
It's easy for me to ridicule this, to point out the massive language problems, the buzz words that don't lead anywhere, but I'll leave that to the reader. I will say that I've seen a hundred web sites for companies that sound just like this, and it's pretty much always just badly-written fluff.

Turning to the section which lists their services, it's once again a standard set of skills that come from e-Business, Consulting Services, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and Staffing Services. Looking back at their News & Events, it's clear to me that Staffing is the one product in which they've actually had some success, but who am I to deny Shibu's dream of this full-service consulting firm? At the same time, I doubt that the current staff of 12 is actually doing all those things.

The point here is that I don't see anything, not in their long list of technologies under e-Business, nor in the other sections of expertise, that is particularly uncommon or arcane, nothing that supports Shibu's contention that he is in a "highly specialized field."

So we move to Saxon's current job openings. All of these, apparently, fall under the Staffing Services notion; I still have seen nothing that tells me that this is anything other than a body shop. Let's look at the qualifications for the first job, "Strong J2EE Developer." (If you're not a particularly technical person, you'll have to take my word for the following - I will try to be conservative in my appraisal.)

This candidate needs:
  • 5 years of full life cycle development with an emphasis on incremental, iterative development and deployment.
  • 5 years of development experience with development tools including Java (EJB, Servlets, and JSP/JSF) and Windows (.NET, C#, .ASP). Development must consist of deployed, large distributed systems across multiple platforms.
  • 2+ years of development experience on SQL databases (Oracle, DB2 or SQL Server) and XML
  • 2 years of web development experience including HTML, DHTML and other server-side technologies
  • 1 year of Object Oriented design and development
If you read the article in the Baltimore Sun, you would have to believe that Saxon is looking for some amazingly specific skill set, and, folks, this ain't it. The person also needs the usual soft skills (ability to learn, team-oriented, written and verbal skills), and a bachelor's degree, or higher, or relevant experience. There is an additional list of Professional Responsibilities, but it does not remarkably expand the requirements for the job beyond the list above.

I don't know where Shibu is looking if he can't find anyone like this. Yes, he'll have to pay for it, and in his competitive market, he may have to pay a lot. But he can find such people, all he has to do is look. The other positions are similar, in that each one requires skills that can be found if Shibu is willing to pay.

But, of course, he's not willing to pay, he has no interest in paying. It's much easier to import the talent from India or Sri Lanka, pay them a joke "prevailing wage," win business by charging less while keeping a substantial cut for yourself. And, if it becomes tough to get the cheap labor you need, whine to the press about it, tell the world that you're just a poor guy trying to get by, prevented by onerous regulations from bringing the business community your worthy "human development."

Shibu, here's an idea. Spend less time crying to a reporter how you can't find the "specialized" talent you actually don't need, and more time finding that talent. Reach into your wallet and pay for quality instead of expecting the United States to hand you labor at whatever you feel like paying. Stop puffing up your outsourcing service into a full-service think tank, when what you are is a low-priced body shop.

And to you reporters who see this Baltimore Sun story as a model, work a little harder. Ask someone who knows whether Shibu really has these incredible requirements that can't be met by American workers. Ask Shibu what he's really willing to pay for quality. Maybe then you'll have a balanced story, instead of this routine twaddle.


Citizen Carrie said...

I have a great curiosity about the murky world of the subcontract shop. It's impossible to find out how many H-1B's a corporation is using when we don't even know who the players are. I followed the chain of contractors and subcontractors (for just one position at GM) down four different levels once.

Androcass said...

It's all murky. I've heard stories of companies that outsource a good portion of their technical work to post office boxes. When they're surveyed, the companies can say that they're not offshoring, just moving the jobs to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Then we get the "studies" that say the problem is understated.

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