Why Mobility in Tech Jobs is Good

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Cindy Del Rio, Negosentro.comThe polarization about the state of STEM jobs is almost as intense and acrimonious as the polarization in Congress. One side claims there is a dearth of qualified applicants. The other insists that there is a surplus of STEM workers. The truth hovers precariously in the middle, with some fields overburdened with applicants and other fields unable to fill all their jobs. The flashpoint for this conflict, however, is labor mobility. Tech companies want to import talent on H-1B visas to fill those jobs, while opponents want to reduce the number of H-1B visas issued. When examined closely, though, mobility in tech jobs is a good thing.

Life – the Geographic Mobility Killer

There are tech jobs everywhere, but the best jobs tend to cluster in specific urban areas. Silicon Valley, Boston and even the Austin-San Antonio corridor are major centers for tech jobs. Rationally speaking, moving to one of those locations for work makes sense. An employee could command a higher salary and work for a hot company. Enter Johnny, a computer science major from Boise State University. Odds are that his first job will be in Boise or somewhere in Idaho. If he starts a family, odds are good that he’ll buy a home. Once he buys that house, it becomes more difficult to move on logistical, financial and psychological grounds. So, even with high demand for tech employees, the domestic employees best suited to fill those jobs may be unwilling to move for those jobs. Skilled foreign workers who want H-1B visas have already made the psychological commitment to move and internationally at that. They are willing to do something that many qualified domestic applicants will not do.

Field-Specific High Demand

The pundits are right. There is a glut of qualified applicants, but only in some areas. For example, the number of biomedical, physics and chemistry PhDs often outstrip the number of full-time positions available, leading to substantial part-time or uncertain employment. Although the employment numbers can vary substantially depending on the region. The pundits are also right that there is a shortage of qualified applicants in fields like software development. A surprise to no one is that better than half of H-1B visas go to programmers, software developers and computer system analysts. The rise of mobile technology, big data and the integration of the Internet into just about everything has created a kind of boom in software development. More importantly, the rate of job growth in software engineering is projected at 22% over the next decade. If the number of domestic workers can’t fill the demand, which all signs indicate they can’t, labor mobility is the only viable solution in the short-medium term.

Pay to Play

No matter what anyone says, hiring employees for tech jobs is not cheap. Kornferry compensation and benefits data places starting salary for software developers straight out of college at just over $65,000. Despite that, a common refrain from those against labor mobility is that it serves as a source of cheap labor in tech that drives down overall salaries. For reference, the overall median salary in the US is around $52,000/year. The median salary for H1-B software engineers at major tech companies ranges from around $84,000 to around $138,000. So how does that stack up? Median pay for domestic software developers is around $102,000. It appears tech companies are happy to pay the same salaries to foreign workers just to fill the jobs.

A nuanced look at labor mobility in STEM shows that the argument is really based on unrefined information. While there may be little need to import biomedical or chemistry PhDs to fill the existing jobs, tech companies can’t find enough domestic worker to fill the existing programming jobs. There appears to be little evidence that foreign workers are driving down tech salaries, given that median salaries for H-1B software engineers hover around six figures. By moving away from the deceptive aggregate data, it becomes clear that labor mobility is a net boon for tech.

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