U.S. IT Labor Advocates Advance 'Labor Is a Commodity' Argument

Don Tennant

In my "Lawson CEO Explains Why We Need the H-1B" post yesterday, I mentioned that the CEO, Harry Debes, referred to labor as "somewhat of a commodity." Suggesting that IT workers are nothing more than a commodity is outrageous, and I fully expected readers to express their outrage. But at this writing, not a single reader who has posted a comment has mentioned it.


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People are not a commodity. Orange juice and grain and oil are commodities. Every barrel of oil is like every other barrel. People are the exact opposite. No two people are alike. And more to the point at hand, no two IT workers have exactly the same experience, work ethic or IT skill set.


That point seems to have been lost, not only within the IT profession as a whole, but even among readers of this blog who adamantly defend U.S. IT workers and who passionately advocate on behalf of those workers' best interests. There was earnest disagreement expressed in response to yesterday's post, but it mainly had to with Debes' viewpoint that there continues to be an IT skills shortage in the U.S.


The reader response to that viewpoint was fascinating. "Can you find a single empirical study that shows a worker shortage in IT?" one reader asked. "Every last one I know of that has been produced has found there is no such worker shortage." Added another reader: "I find it absurd that anyone is using the words IT labor shortage' in the year 2010."


The problem is that we tend to think of "worker shortage in IT" and "IT labor shortage" as being synonymous with "IT skills shortage." They are not synonymous. The phrase "IT labor shortage" was not used in this blog post. What was being discussed was the question of whether there's an IT skills shortage, which is an entirely different matter.


The CEOs and CIOs I speak with almost never suggest that there is an IT labor shortage. They say that if there's a shortage, it's in the particular skills they're looking for. The legitimacy of that assessment is extremely difficult to prove or disclaim. IT skills requirements are so fluid that it would be nearly impossible to come up with an empirical study to answer the skills shortage question. Any such study would only be a snapshot in time, and would be of little true value.


Responding to the question of whether there's an IT skills shortage with an argument that studies show there is no shortage of IT workers lends credence to the outrageous contention that IT workers are a commodity. By substituting "worker shortage" or "labor shortage" for "skills shortage," we're suggesting that one IT worker is just like the next, like two grains of rice. Until that distinction is consistently made and appreciated, the commoditization of people will continue to advance.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 29, 2010 9:51 AM Bob Bob  says:

Here's where tech CEOs want to have it both ways

On the one hand, they give an excruciatingly long list of 'requirements', that often bears an uncanny resemblance to the resume of the H-1b they are trying to sponsor, or it requires skills in complete or excess match to the job, sometimes even requring more years experience than a tool has even been in existence!

Yet, at the same time, the CEO know exactly what he should have to pay for this unique snowflake of a requirement

Apr 29, 2010 10:59 AM BB BB  says:

Employers imply that you are nothing but a commodity when they are refusing to hire you, setting your salary, or laying you off.

Employers imply that they only hire very special people when they give long detailed lists of job requirements that only the H1B they want to hire is an exact match to.

The H1B visa is nothing more than the United States government interfering with the free labor market by creating two classes of employees: one that can be fired, and on that can be fired AND immediately deported. Which one do you think will be more "motivated"?

Employers can legally discriminate against qualified Americans by firing them without cause and recruiting only H-1B guest-workers to replace them.  The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has said:  'H-1B workers may be hired even when a qualified U.S. worker wants the job, and a U.S. worker can be displaced from the job in favor of a foreign worker.'  Some companies that discriminate against American workers are so brazen that their job advertisements say 'H-1B visa holders only.'  And some companies in the United States have workforces that consist almost entirely of H-1B guest-workers.        

Reference: http://durbin.senate.gov/showRelease.cfm?releaseId=311910

Apr 29, 2010 4:14 PM yoyome yoyome  says:

"IT skills shortage.' ??? What a joke. We train those guys.. Keep ranting Mr. Tofu

Apr 29, 2010 6:02 PM Joel Witherspoon Joel Witherspoon  says: in response to Bob

Your remark "sometimes even requring more years experience than a tool has even been in existence!" strikes a chord. I remember a CIO in 2006 remarking that he would hire only individuals with five or more years of "Cloud Computing experience" even though the "cloud" idea was just taking shape at that time. He had a completely unrealistic expectation.

Apr 30, 2010 7:23 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

I didn't pick up on the commodity comment and didn't think it was a major part of the discussion, but now that you bring it up

Before I tackle that I want to tackle the "Skills Shortage" argument.  Certainly there are "skills shortages" but the way that is addressed is through on the job training and allowing the market to encourage people to learn those skills.  That means higher pay.  If the market isn't willing to convince people to seek those skills with higher pay (how we do things in a Capitalist system) then there really isn't a shortage.  When in one breath Harry Debes claims a skill shortage and the other breath calls people commodities - there is his clue as to what is wrong in his organization.

When corporations make the "skill shortage" argument it is almost always followed by the "raise the H-1b cap" argument.  Rarely do they claim any responsibility for the shortage - rather they are looking for a easy and cheap solution.  Increasing the supply of labor will of course make these areas with skill shortages even less attractive because wages will be artificially reduced - and the "shortage" will never be filled by the domestic workforce.

As far as people being treated as commodities - I agree that it shouldn't be the case but unfortunately it is the case.  The "body shop" mentality of our industry lends itself to that, as does offshoring.

Americans should stop competing in the same space as India.  India is clearly trying to commoditize the labor force and compete on cost.  Americans won't win in a competition with India on cost alone.  We should be competing on overall value.  In short, don't be a tool for people like Harry Debes.

May 1, 2010 2:54 PM Steve Smith Steve Smith  says: in response to R. Lawson


Having been mentioned here, let me add my 2 cents.

If if it is a skills shortage:

1. How come job ads for U.S. workers include a laundry list of requirements and the failure to meet any one means immediate disqualification---while ads for foreign workers give just general requirements (e.g. "IT Experience") and often include training?

2. Where are these people from India and where ever getting these skills?

3. If it is a skills question, why are employers replacing U.S. workers they already have with H-1B workers and forcing the U.S. workers to train their replacements?

4. Why does IBM tell its U.S. employees they to give first priority on project staffing to folks imported from India?---Doesn't sound like skills.


Jul 29, 2010 3:17 PM Madia Madia  says:

THe commodity model is the result of a paradigm shift done about 10-15 years ago at the larger fortune 500 companies.  The ones that were built by the people who were encouraged to be loyal.  All these companies grew as a result of their employees being grown and nurtured but the business.  But now for your 25 years of coming in midnights to fix something on your own time,  and the 50 hour workweek you get a gold watch and two weeks later the boot.  Thats the Commodity model.  We have gone from being employees and treasured assets to something to be bought and sold or hired and fired at the whim of management or stock prices.  The result of this is what you see now - crashed economy locally with corporate profits in the stratosphere. BUt those profits are vapor.

Instead of bailing out banks and corporates propagating this type of business model we should be creating companies that hire locally and sell globally.  Companies should return to the models that build IBM, GE, into the manufacturing might they once were instead of the stock market shells they are today.   This economic slump isn't going to go away for the majority of us.  Maybe there is too much over regulation and taxation but may I submit the socialistic government in place now wouldn't be there if people were being treated as assets and not commodities.

Oct 13, 2010 10:01 AM KTP KTP  says: in response to Madia

You hit that nail on the head. The problem is, how do we move this "socialistic" push by big brother out of our government?

It's not going to happen with the 2-party system we have going, and as long as the powers that be are in power, looks like we will have a continual slide downward to a third-world country.

But, on the other hand, the so-called "fortune 500" are VERY, VERY poorly run and it is only a matter of time before they are all extinct themselves..  There is no humanity in these corporations, they all follow the almighty dollar and it will be their downfall in the long run.

For good examples, look at our big car companies, they would NOT be in existence today if the taxpayers hadn't bailed them out.

The taxpayers who largely DID NOT want to bail them out.  Hopefully, next time they won't have this socialistic backstop and they will die the death they deserve. 

Only then can we start over and build the corporations that are successful not only for our country, but for its citizens.

Just wait.


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