President Obama Is Interested In Unemployed Engineers

Jan. 31, 2012
President Obama's video conference, courtesy of Google Plus brought H1-B questions to the fore.

It was an interesting technology photo op for President Obama. A video conference arranged by Google Plus brought together voters and President Obama to talk about issues that are affecting the country. Of more than 133,000 questions submitted on topics ranging from drone attacks to environmental issues, five people got to ask theirs.

Jennifer Weddel asked why the govenment was continuing to issue work visas to foreigners so they could work in the U.S. This is an H1-B issue.

President Obama said, “I don't know what your husband's specialty [is], but I can tell you that there is a huge demand around the country for engineers.” He also said, "Where you're seeing a lot of specialized demand is in engineering that is related to the hi-tech industries." The president found out that her husband's engineering background was in the semiconductor industry.

This issue hits very close to home for many of you. The Weddel's live in Texas and he has been out of work for three years. The president noted that H1-B visas are issued to people that have needed skills, but we know that the issue is much more complex than that.

One of the most popular articles at Electronic Design is the annual salary survey article (see Engineering Salary Survey 2011: Faces of the Engineering Lifecycle). Likewise, job related articles are of interest to all readers.

Now it is true that hot beds for semiconductor work are places like Texas and California. I suspect that we can get plenty of war stories about H1-B visas. I also suspect that age is a factor in Weddel's case, much to the detriment of the companies looking for engineers.

Unfortunately, too many human resource (HR) types take requirements quite literally and want as much detail as possible to make automatic filtering easier. They have as much information overload as we do. Likewise, experience tends to be pushed to extremes, while age becomes a negative from their perspective because it usually means higher salaries, benefits and insurance costs.

My problem with HR and those pushing H1-B visas is that engineers, programmers and scientists are a group that is tasked with learning. Nothing gets us more interested in a project than learning something new and applying. We are often tasked with coming up with something new, so how to you check a resume for that? Experience.

I think the range as well as depth of experience is important in addition to the ability to adapt. I suspect that most engineers will agree with this.

Hiring fresh talent just out of college or those with H1-B visas tends to be more about control and salary than getting the best person for the job. There are always exceptions but we are talking about the majority of cases.

Let's take embedded programming as an example. How many learned how to program in C a decade ago? Guess what, C is still the primary programming language for embedded projects. Need to learn a new programming language or API? It is not that hard.

The employment issue is personal to me in many ways. I help run the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair in New Jersey. I need to be able to tell hundreds of students that science and engineering are not only fun and interesting but can lead to employment. I think that is the case, but it is definitely not as easy as it was in the past.

My wife and I have engineering degrees. We have three children and all are engineers as well. Luckily all three are gainfully employed and using their degrees. By the way, all the degrees are in different disciplines. No one wanted to follow in mom's or dad's footsteps.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything comes of Weddel's search for employment with a possible assist from President Obama. Then again, when it comes to job searches, it is more often important who you know that what you know.


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