Donald Barlett and James Steele, authors of the best-selling "America: What Went Wrong," are revisiting their economic series with a fresh look at policies that contributed to the current economic crisis. Their "Offshoring" entry - which should be required reading for every 2012 presidential hopeful - examines programming jobs. Once thought as the key to our economic future, IT jobs have been declining for two decades even as the tech industry has demanded more visas for foreign workers.
Barlett and Steele take us back to 1990, when the Labor Department predicted that "employment of programmers is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005 . . ." As Barlett and Steel point out, that didn't happen. Instead, the number of programming jobs in the U.S. actually declined by 12 percent from 1990 to 2002.
The decline was already underway in 1998 when the tech industry successfully lobbied to nearly double the number of H-1B visas issued every year. The Clinton Administration knew the tech industry was bluffing about a labor shortage. The Deputy Wage and Hour Administrator at the Department of Labor testified before Congress that the number of computer science degrees had been rising (even as the number of jobs were declining) since 1992, and warned that "[i]ncreased immigration should be the last -- not the first -- public policy response to skills shortages." But the Republican Congress passed a bill to raise the H-1B cap and President Clinton signed it.
By 2006, the Department of Labor reversed its earlier prediction and forecast continued declines in programming jobs well into the future. So far, Labor's revised forecast has proved correct. Barlett and Steele write:
Programmer jobs have continued to decline and were at 427,000 in 2008, the last year for which figures are available. Even that masked the magnitude of the domestic job losses. For among those 427,000 programmers were thousands of H-1B guest workers - foreign nationals brought in by American companies under immigration law to do programming, usually at much lower pay and benefits.
Barlett and Steele identify offshoring as the chief culprit in the demise of U.S. programming jobs (see my previous blog for how the H-1B program accelerates offshoring). They write "[t]he U.S. government is still very interested in creating programmer jobs - just not in this country." In a striking opening to their piece, Barlett and Steele write:
Over and over, Americans are told that education is the key to their job future. The more education you have, the better your shot at getting a job that pays middle-income wages to take care of your family....But some major flaws in this theory are playing out today in a field that was once thought to have the brightest future - information technology.
This ominous and topical insight comes on the eve of the 2012 presidential race. In his State Of The Union Address, President Obama repeatedly insisted that education and innovation are the keys to "winning the future." Specifically, he recommended a greater investment in math and science education, as well as attracting and retaining more foreign students with advanced degrees. The speech drew sharp criticism from H-1B critics including Professor Norm Matloff of the University of California, Davis, who wrote "The only solution is to recognize and remedy the basic problem--the willingness of American firms to locate all, or large sections, of their operations elsewhere in the world, and to hire foreign workers for those jobs they choose to keep in the U.S."
There is plenty of time for the president to shift his stance, or for a challenger to present a new way forward for programmers and all workers at risk of losing their job to a foreign worker or offshoring. Time will tell if a candidate will rise to the occasion, but Americans deserve a debate.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, May 5th 2011 @ 5:54pm EDT