Forbes: Harvard Study Debunks Immigrant Tech Worker Myth

It’s often been said that truth is the first casualty of war, but the same could be said for many of our country’s political debates, including the long-running fight over U.S. immigration policy. Although most commentators understand that programs like the H1B visa play a pivotal role in our economy – allowing U.S. high-tech businesses to hire the best, brightest, and most innovative workers from around the world – the program still has its critics. Their claim: hiring young, highly skilled foreigners means fewer jobs for native-born workers, especially those who are older.

The problem is, the facts are not on their side. Forbes magazine reports that a recent Harvard Business School study finds that “although many tech firms do tend to favor employing younger workers, older native workers are not losing their jobs in droves directly as a result of the immigrants who are coming in.” [See Immigrant High-Tech Workers Not Costing U.S. Jobs, by Dina Gerdeman, Forbes, 22.Jan.2014.]

Among other things, the study’s authors found “a strong link between expansions in a firm’s young skilled immigrant employment, where young workers are defined as those under 40 years old, and expansions in other parts of the firm’s skilled workforce. With this framework, we estimate that a ten percent increase in a firm’s young skilled immigrant employment correlates with a six percent increase in the total skilled workforce of the firm. Expansion is evident and mostly balanced for older and younger native skilled workers.” [See Skilled Immigration and the Employment Structures of U.S. Firms, by Sari Pekkala Kerr (Wellesley), William R. Kerr (Harvard), and William F. Lincoln (Johns Hopkins/SAIS), Harvard Business School Working Paper 14-040, 15.Nov.2013.]

According to the authors, many prior studies of high-tech immigration suffer from a certain conceptual fuzziness, because they examine too much at once, and fall back on generalizations that are not especially illuminating. Instead of examining a wide swath of the labor market, the Harvard study focuses more narrowly on the effects of high-tech immigration at the firm level – in this case, high-tech firms that accounted for 34 percent of U.S. patents during the 1995-2008 period under examination. This focus is critical, the authors argue, because the predominant means of high-tech immigration – the H1B visa – is driven by business decisions of individual firms, which identify and choose the foreign workers that will meet their needs.

What the Harvard study revealed, by examining the behavior of individual firms, should help put to rest the ill-founded objections of those who – erroneously – see high-tech immigration as a threat to American jobs. One hopes the skeptics are paying attention.

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