Prof. Matloff Busts 'Best and Brightest' Ballyhoo for H-1B Workers

By David North, March 18, 2011

Professor Norm Matloff (from the University of California at Davis) quietly demolished the industry-cultivated notion that because H-1B workers are the "best and the brightest" more of them should be admitted to work in America's high-tech industries.

He did so this morning a few blocks from Capitol Hill, at the Georgetown University Law School building at a meeting sponsored by the GU Institute for the Study of International Migration.

Matloff began by quoting Microsoft's Bill Gates, and other tech industry leaders, who have repeatedly characterized the foreign workers in this program as the "best and the brightest" as they have sought to expand the program and/or make it easier for foreign tech workers to obtain green cards. The term has even been picked up by the president and is often heard in immigration debates in the Congress.

He then went on to characterize the H-1B program as one that brings workers to prosperous companies at a 15-20 percent discount from market wages, and allows industry to repeatedly hire young foreign workers (below age 35) and to push aside older, equally-skilled, but more expensive, American workers. He also argued that flat wages in the industry recently are a strong sign that there is no shortage of tech workers, another industry claim.

As to the "best and brightest" argument, Matloff, a statistician, presented a series of regression analyses to make his point, saying that once one had, through this technique, sorted out extraneous factors, the H-1B workers turned out to be pretty much like the rest of us, some brilliant, many average.

One of the extraneous factors in the wage comparisons is the heavy concentration of H-1Bs in high cost of living areas, which inflates wages for workers in these areas.

Perhaps the best indicia of high skill levels are wages paid by corporations, he said, but any comparative analysis of wages paid to H-1B workers and their U.S. co-workers (citizens and green card holders) ran into another analytical problem: that is the fact that H-1B workers, because of loopholes in the law and employer practices, are paid 15-20 percent less than their colleagues. To get around that, Matloff used the wage rates offered to people seeking green cards via the labor certification route, and compared those wages (in computer sciences and electrical engineering) to the wages of their U.S. colleagues – and found little difference.

The latter comparison is an apples-to-apples one, because wages set for green cards are paid in a competitive market, while that is not true for H-1Bs, who are tied to the companies that brought them to the U.S.

Matloff also showed regression analyses that indicated that there was not much difference between H-1B and other workers in terms of patents filed per capita and scholarly articles signed per capita, two other indirect indices of productivity.

He questioned studies that found that the foreign workers were more innovative than American ones because they opened more companies; "opening a shop that assembles PCs is not innovation", he said, and that was something that many H-1Bs and ex-H1Bs have done.

He also argued against the provision in the proposed "Staple Bills" that would automatically grant a green card to a foreign student getting a PhD in one of the high-tech fields (described colloquially as stapling a green card to their diplomas). "PhDs are overkill in the computer business, but master's degrees are valuable."

He said that an analysis of the industry awards made by a big industry group, the Association for Computing Machinery, since the early 1980s showed that both Americans and people from India received awards in keeping with their populations in the industry, while Chinese did less well than their overall numbers would suggest.

As to the relative lack of innovation of Chinese in the computer industry, compared to the other large H-1B group, Indians, Matloff (who is married to a speaker of Cantonese) said that it was not poor command of the English language that kept Chinese from more success, but rather the legacy of the rote learning that occupies so much of Chinese education.

B. Lindsay Lowell, of the Georgetown migration program, presided at the session, which was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.