One of the things I've found as I write about the controversy surrounding the H-1B visa program is that there appears to be something of an urban legend that the CEOs of technology companies, many of whom are among the strongest advocates of the program, argue that American engineers tend to be less qualified than foreign engineers.
To be clear, the legend isn't that American engineers are less qualified; the legend is that tech CEOs claim that they are to justify the need for H-1B visa holders.
I have no idea how this particular legend gained any traction, because I've talked to a lot of tech CEOs about this, and I can't remember any of them contending any such thing. They argue that the H-1B program is needed to ensure that we have a deep pool of technology talent, but they don't argue that U.S. workers are inferior in some way.
It's interesting that Dr. Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis and one of the most vocal H-1B opponents around, hasn't seen any such contention, either. "As far as I know," he wrote in an e-mail several days ago, "no tech CEO has claimed that the technical quality of American engineers is lower than that of foreign ones." What's even more interesting is a survey Matloff cited, which, he noted, "said the opposite." That survey was prepared by none other than Vivek Wadhwa.
Now, I had never even heard of Wadhwa before I began writing on this topic here about a month ago, but I soon learned that he's seen as an arch-villain by the more reckless element within the anti-H-1B crowd (the fact that he was born in India doesn't help). I've also learned that he's a senior research associate at Harvard Law School and Executive in Residence at Duke University, and that he's written extensively on the topics of what he calls "skilled immigration" and the global technology workforce.
The research that Matloff cited was a 2006 study that Wadhwa authored with two other Duke University scholars, "Industry Trends in Engineering Offshoring." Matloff excerpted two paragraphs from the study in his e-mail to me:
"On the question what capabilities do your U.S. engineers have that make it advantageous to keep their jobs in the U.S.,' the response was that U.S. engineers have a very good understanding of U.S. consumer needs, culture, business, and better communication and interpersonal skills. Respondents also stated that U.S. engineers were more creative, excelled in problem solving, risk taking, networking and had strong analytical skills. In addition they could work on high security applications and had the advantage of proximity to resources."
"When asked to compare the productivity of the engineering workforce between their U.S and offshore facilities, 37% of respondents stated that U.S. engineering employees are more productive, while 24% stated that U.S. and offshore engineering teams are equivalent in terms of productivity. We also asked companies to compare the quality of engineering work between their U.S. and offshore facilities. Our pool of respondents was broken down as follows: 38% said their U.S. engineering employees produced higher quality work, 40% reported that work quality was equivalent between U.S. and offshore facilities, and 1% reported that their company's offshore engineering employees produce higher quality work."
While Matloff's e-mail was informative, what was really significant about it was the example he set by his willingness to cite the research of someone whose views on offshoring and the H-1B visa program are almost diametrically opposed to his own. Wadhwa's "survey was well designed and is a good contribution to the discussion," Matloff wrote in the e-mail.
This is why Matloff is such a highly-respected voice on the anti-H-1B side of the debate. This is why his voice is heard by policymakers. The case against H-1B fraud and abuse needs to be heard, and it will be if it's made by people who choose reason, decency and facts over mean-spiritedness, personal attacks and reckless accusations. The noble effort to fix the H-1B problem will be dismissed as the ranting of a lunatic fringe for as long as the rants muffle the voice of reason. Matloff is to be admired for his leadership in the effort, but as capable as he is, he can't do it alone.