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Immigration and Programmers: The Law of the Land

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Last year at this time, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was faced with a problem. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, only 65,000 temporary work visas (green cards) could be issued for the year 1997, a limit known as the H-1B cap. The problem facing the INS last August 25 was that this limit had already been reached even though the fiscal year still had another month. When news of this dilemma surfaced, there was an outcry from computer manufacturers and software developers throughout the country. How were these high-tech companies going to fill all the vacancies for programmers?

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA)—an 11,000-member association representing various elements in the technology sector—immediately lobbied the INS to postdate new green card applications with a date of October 1 to prevent a disruption in the flow of foreign information technology workers into the U.S. workplace. At the same time, ITAA began a successful lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill to change or remove the H-1B cap on foreign-born computer programmers. During the lengthy hearings that followed, representatives of ITAA claimed that there were 350,000 unfilled jobs in the United States for programmers, systems analysts, and computer engineers. ITAA posed the question in patriotic terms: “How can the United States retain its predominance in information technology if these artificial governmental barriers continue to hamper the industry’s brain pool?”

These congressional hearings spawned bill H.R. 3736, the Workforce Improvement and Protection Act of 1998, introduced last April 18 by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas). Under this proposed legislation, the H-1B cap would be increased to 95,000 green cards in fiscal year 1998; 105,000 in 1999; and 115,000 in 2000. The bill, if passed by the House and signed by the president, will open the door for 315,000 new souls into the workforce over three years. A similar bill, called the American Competitiveness Act of 1998, has already been passed by the Senate.

The Programmer Shortage: RPGers Need Not Apply

For AS/400 programmers, H.R. 3736 is a controversial document. How does an immigration bill affect our AS/400 shops? On the one hand, there is no lack of work in AS/400 shops: With so many legacy applications still needing to become Y2K-compliant, there is certainly a need of resources. Is that what H.R. 3736 is addressing? ITAA says, yes.

On the other hand, if a desperate need for programmers really exists, why is the AS/400 job market still so weak? Wouldn’t there be a higher demand for these workers if the shortage were real? Shouldn’t there be higher salaries and better benefits for RPGers? Not necessarily so, midrange recruiters tell us. Although salaries are tending to increase right now, the job market for senior-level job seekers is still very uneven. Recruiters say that many programmers—with years of substantial experience in RPG or other languages—often spend months trying to land positions comparable to their skill level. The market-niche for AS/400 programmers is still very small. The real demand for talent, recruiters say, is in the “new technology” sector where object-oriented programming methodologies using tools like C++ and Java are required.

According to these analysts, RPG has a limited future, and all the “hot” jobs will be filled with workers who know Java programming or other object-oriented languages.

Is Immigration Hurting AS/400 Programmers?

But even for AS/400 professionals who have learned the new programming skills, there is still a quandary. Migrating to Java doesn’t always leverage programmers’ business experiences. This sometimes means that learning Java doesn’t always allow them to retain the salary levels they have already achieved in RPG shops. The question these coders ask is simple: “Do we have to forsake the job security we have attained within the business- computing sector in order to compete against newly arrived immigrants who work longer hours for lower wages?”

This concern raises broader questions, ones going to the heart of H.R. 3736 and the H-1B cap. Is there a real need for more programmers in the United States? Or is it possible that H.R. 3736 and the ITAA campaign are nothing more than shakedowns of the employment sector by the computing industry? If so, what are the implications for the AS/400 community? What are the real trends in the industry, and where do AS/400 professionals fit into that larger picture?

“Hot” Skills or Shakedown?

According to the ITAA, the United States is understaffed with skilled programmers in the hot new technology sectors of object-oriented programming. But some analysts have come to a different conclusion; according to them, software companies just don’t want to pay the premium prices required by domestic programmers. They say that there is no programmer shortage, only a shortage of cheap labor. This view is held by Dr. Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis. In his paper “Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage” (http://heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/itaa.real. html#tth_sEc2), Matloff makes a potent argument against the claims of ITAA.

“Microsoft only hires 2 percent of its applicants for software positions, and…this rate is typical in the industry,” Matloff says. “Call any employer, and they will concede that they receive huge numbers of resumés but reject most of them without even an interview. One does not have to be a ‘techie’ to see the blatant contradiction here. If employers were that desperate, they would certainly not be hiring just a minuscule fraction of their job applicants.”

In addition, Matloff observes a number of trends in the current job market:

• The average wage increase for programmers has been mild (7 percent in 1997). Were employers truly desperate, they would be willing to pay premium wages.

• Employers are interested only in three subgroups of the programming labor pool: new or recent college graduates, foreign nationals on work visas, and those few mid-career programmers who are fortunate enough to have work experience in such hot programming languages as Java.

• The unemployment rate for programmers over age 50 is reported at 17 percent, and the longevity trend is downward.

• Among graduates of college computer science programs, only 19 percent are still in the field 20 years after completing their studies. This compares to 52 percent for civil engineering majors.

The Preference for the Young and the Question of Degree

Matloff goes on to state that many industry officials have admitted that they have shifted their hiring practices specifically to attract younger, less expensive employees. Matloff says Intel is intensely interested in this group. According to him, Intel’s recruiting literature is riddled with acronyms such as NCG (new college graduate) and RCG (recent college graduate). To stress the institutionalization of age preference, Matloff points to statements made by officials at Sun Microsystems that identify a “senior level” employee as “28 years old with six years of experience.” Cypress Semiconductor even advertises one “senior’’ position for engineers as requiring only three years of experience, according to Matloff.

The industry counters that its recruiting practices reflect the need to attract academically trained professionals and that there is a significant lack of these types of students graduating from colleges and universities. However, Matloff contends that our educational system is already matriculating more than enough graduates in the field of computer science. “Contrary to industry claims,” he says, “university enrollment in computer science curricula exploded by 40 percent nationwide in 1996 [and] 1997, and then by another 39 percent in the 1997/1998 academic year.” Furthermore, Matloff insists that one doesn’t require a college degree in computer science to become a programmer. “Traditionally, only about 25 percent of computer programmers have had such degrees. This is the same proportion we see today; it has not declined. And on the postgraduate level, we are actually overproducing Ph.D.’s in science and engineering.”

Yet, according to Matloff, “Cypress Semiconductor, whose CEO, T.J. Rodgers, has been most vocal in claiming labor shortages, admits that it only recruits engineers at 26 colleges in the nation out of the 320 accredited engineering schools in the United States. Even ITAA has conceded that employers do not recruit at very many colleges.”

Finally, Matloff points to the bottom line: “The number of H-1B work visas requested by the industry for computer programmers increased by 352 percent from 1990 to 1995, during which time the number of programming jobs increased by only 35 percent.” The effect of this increase of programmers in the workforce has been to artificially lower the cost of programmers throughout the United States. According to Matloff, this influx creates de facto age discrimination, forcing older programmers—with higher wage requirements—out of the job market.

Technology Versus Protectionism

But is Matloff’s perspective derived from industry trends or merely from protectionist fervor?

“This is not an issue of xenophobia,” the professor claims. “Immigrant computer programmers encounter the same age discrimination when they reach age 35 or 40 that natives do.… Employer hiring of foreign nationals, rather than being based on need, is

often motivated by the fact that those workers will often take lower salaries. A number of independent academic studies, including one by a prominent immigration attorney, have shown that the H-1B workers are paid lower salaries, ranging from 15 to 30 percent.” Moreover, according to Matloff, an audit by the Inspector General of the Department of Labor found rampant abuse in the H-1B program. This audit found that “applications for H-1B visas by U.S. employers are merely rubber stamped.” Furthermore, “In 19 percent of the cases, employers were not even paying the salaries they had promised in their applications.”

Programmers and Programming in Transition

As disturbing as Matloff’s claims appear, perhaps there is some other force that is dictating the dynamic of programmer immigration. Perhaps it is not purely an imperative driven by economics but a dynamic created by the evolution of the technology itself. Is there perhaps a reason that the opportunities for AS/400 programmers seem less robust than those in other technical fields? After all, regardless of the degree of technological change, employees’ career credentials and experience comprise a significant proportion of the skills they bring to the work environment. Conventional wisdom says that no company can long afford to bring unseasoned workers—workers without specific business knowledge and experience—into IT without severe disruptions in the workplace. How many consultants tell stories of CIOs who bemoan the lack of business experience that “raw recruits” exhibit? How many new applications languish in IT test libraries because a programmer hasn’t mastered the basics of the company’s business practices? These are not skills that can be purchased “out of the box” or from graduate courses in computer languages. These are life skills that come from long, tedious hours of systems analysis, feasibility studies, design enhancements, and company-specific implementation plans in a real business environment.

For AS/400 professionals, this set of skills is often obtained after long apprenticeships. Traditionally, AS/400 programmers begin their careers in other areas of an organization and gradually migrate to the IS department. Their employee skills are then often tested in lower echelon jobs, such as nighttime operator or junior programmer, while they gradually pick up the programming skills required to move to more senior positions. By the time employees actually achieve the level of “senior,” they already have become deeply entrenched in the mores of the organization, know its general business goals, and often use that knowledge to streamline some practice or workflow within the organization. Their success, in turn, furthers their careers within the organization, providing them with new esteem from colleagues and new opportunities by management. The ultimate career move for the traditional AS/400 professional is often into management itself: managing groups of programmers, managing the site, or even becoming the Chief Information Officer of the organization itself.

But what if the programmer doesn’t want to develop management skills? What path can an AS/400 programmer follow then? Do Matloff’s statistics (which tell us that only 19 percent of us will be in computer technology after 20 years) merely state the obvious: that there is glass ceiling in IS defining the limits of company promotion? Is this what causes RPG programmers to seek another path?

For many programmers, the “other path” often leads into the field of contract consulting. For others, it’s a career in commercial package programming. However, to achieve success in these arenas, a programmer’s success is always based upon the achievement of measurable programming skills. In today’s market, where business knowledge is difficult to judge in the programming arena, the only resumé bullets that shine and attract notice are the hot programming languages that continually sweep through

the industry. In the past, these languages included Pascal, C, and SmallTalk. Today, “hot” means C++, Visual Basic, and, of course, Java. In other words, AS/400 programmers have some unique difficulties leveraging their business experience outside the AS/400 environment because there are no means by which to quantify their programming experience—except by learning the new languages. AS/400 professionals are literally forced into wider programming markets that are defined by broader industry trends. These are precisely the programming markets that H.R. 3736 addresses: high-tech markets that rely upon object-oriented programming technologies, lower wages, and fewer business- specific skills.

Java: Is It Factoid or Fictoid?

So, how does Java fit into this realm? IBM is making a big thing out of the object- oriented technology of Java for the AS/400, and it intends to make certain that software vendors are using this technology. If you point your Web browser to IBM’s Partners In Development Web site (http://www.softmall.ibm.com/as400/ java/solutions/javajem.html), you’ll find a list of AS/400 commercial software vendors who have taken a stand on the significance of Java and the AS/400. Each link gives a small quotation by the president or development director telling the story of the significance of Java to their software development strategy. For instance, Paul Mickelsen, CEO of Island Pacific Systems says, “From our point of view, Java and the Network Station are inarguably the ideal solution to our need for application redesign.” Thomas Torf, the director of strategic sales at Inprise Corporation (formerly Borland International), tells us “[Our company sees] Java as the new revolution—similar to the GUI ‘overthrow’ of the green-screen. AS/400 as an enterprise Java server is in a unique position to be a leader in this revolution.” There are many such messages at IBM’s Web site, all geared to conveying the message of change—significant change—in the way that software will be constructed on the AS/400.

Perhaps one of the most meaningful changes is being driven by IBM’s San Francisco Project. The San Francisco initiative is a project that is developing an extensive set of Java-based, reusable business process components designed to build complete mission-critical applications. These applications will include general ledger, sales order processing, inventory management, and product distribution. More than 200 IBM Business Partners worldwide are participating in the San Francisco initiative through advisory councils. Many of these participating Business Partners will be developing AS/400 commercial applications that will appeal to small and medium-sized AS/400 customers. Since Java is a cross-platform language, enabling vendors to build applications that run on more than just the AS/400, it’s to the vendor’s advantage to support San Francisco. But doesn’t this also mean that, by using programmers who come from the broader programming markets, they can ultimately keep down the cost of manning the programming team? And if this is so, how can they get the job done with Java programmers who don’t have the specific business experience required to build the applications?

Mass-produced Skyscrapers in San Francisco

The answer to these questions may come in the design of the San Francisco Project itself. The business process components of San Francisco are not “end-products” in the traditional sense of the word, but prefabricated frameworks from which the Business Partner software companies can construct their own applications. Using the object-oriented programming tools of Java, San Francisco is creating class libraries of components that are organized into towerlike models to be later assembled according to the configurations required by the vendor’s applications. Often, this concept is difficult to quantify for the traditional RPG programmer. The best analogy to use is not the typical programming

model in which program function is broken into subroutines. Rather, San Francisco is using a model similar to one that creates the mass-produced components of a skyscraper. These are constructions composed of nuts and bolts and girders and struts—the basic building blocks of the prefabricated office complex.

Let’s look at this concept for a moment. In a typical RPG application, programmers examine the total function of their program and then custom build the elements required to accomplish that function. For instance, a simple DDS keyword will create a selection window from which a user can choose an item. Now, compare this process to the Java classes being built by San Francisco. It’s not unusual for a Java programmer in the San Francisco environment to spend hours creating a class that represents a simple windowpane of a particular design. Once created, the windowpane will be used in a million different constructions, but the process of creating the pane itself requires choosing the right materials (classes) and fashioning them to the appropriate specification so that an entire wall of windows can be hoisted into the framework. The windowpane itself then becomes a class to be reused over and over again. Thus, a Java programmer’s primary concern in San Francisco is establishing a reusable module that interlocks with every other module in the tower of the framework. It is a different model of work entirely from RPG. It is a model designed for mass production.

Mass Market Versus Mass Production

If Java’s object-oriented design methodologies lend themselves to the mass production of software (tools that reduce the level of programming to the creation of interlocking components), then an argument can be made that traditional business skills may no longer be such a valuable asset for programmers to maintain. If this is the case, then the need for cheaper programmers—the net effect of H.R. 3736—might be justified, according to some Draconian principle of supply and demand (i.e., the market needs cheap immigrant labor to build cheaper, mass-produced software components; therefore, it’s okay to flood the market with younger, inexpensive immigrants who know a little code). Of course, this is not the purpose of Java or of the San Francisco initiative: IBM’s goal is to create faster, more powerful application frameworks. Nonetheless, it certainly can be seen as a market dynamic that pushes high-tech firms to need more programmers, and the cheaper the better.

And what happens if you combine this trend in software development with the industry’s preternatural bent toward hiring younger and younger technicians? For instance, if a 28-year-old can qualify as a “senior” programmer, what is the reasonable age of an entry-level technician? Is 21 too old? How about 18?

High-tech High: Tomorrow’s Burger King?

One of the more recent, intriguing trends in education is the technology high school, an alternative curriculum created in many school districts that brings the sponsorship of high-tech firms directly into the classroom. One such site is the New Technology High School of Napa, California (http://nths.napa.ca.us/). “New Technology High School is committed to leading educational reform,” the school states. “Integrating education and technology has put us in a unique position. In order to ensure success for both students and staff, funding for technology refreshment and skill development is critical. Developing business partnerships, running site institutes, and offering classes at our site are some of the methods we use to meet our needs.” New Technology High uses its own group of business partner sponsors to bring this funding and skill development into being.

On the face of it, New Technology High is the next generation of what was once called “industrial arts” schools. The idea is to teach students programming technology

instead of welding iron rods or repairing bent fenders. Graduates of the school hope to be able to leverage this technological exposure into high-paying business positions using the tools of the trade. New Technology High’s educational partners include Hewlett-Packard, Lotus Development Corporation, and Silicon Graphics, along with the U.S. Department of Education. The school maintains many of the traditional high school classes, including American studies, political science, and physics. However, New Technology High also offers classes in Windows 95, Microsoft Office, Lotus Notes, and the Internet. The school offers multimedia courses, too, as well as the opportunity to work internships with local businesses. The educational effort is clearly to prepare high school students for the real world of business.

But how much of a jump does the high school student need to make the move from Microsoft Office to Visual Basic macro programming? And, once introduced to the power of visual programming (using tools refreshed biannually by the software companies themselves), how soon will these graduates be ready to tackle the more difficult concepts of object-oriented programming languages such as Java or C++? Is it a stretch to imagine that the skills currently demanded by high-tech firms will soon be commonplace entry- level skills? Can we not foresee a day soon when high school graduates (complete with programming degrees) fill the software factories of high-tech firms? In a different industry, isn’t this exactly how General Motors and Ford manned their assembly plants in Detroit? Or, to take this idea even further, will programming one day become the “Burger King” job skill that feeds the nation’s appetite for software but fails to fill the lunch pail of the programmer?

If Learning Java Isn’t Enough, What Will Be the Path?

Indeed, it seems that, unless programmers have other skills (measurable skills that differentiate their achievements), the world of business programming that has fostered so many careers will soon merely lead to continuous thrashing in the job market, lowered wages, and lengthened work hours. In other words, for the AS/400 programmer, merely learning a new language like Java may not be enough. And if what Dr. Matloff says about “too many Ph.D.’s” is correct, getting an advanced degree is no salve either. To secure the benefits of a real career, there must come some mechanism by which an AS/400 programmer can truly become professional. Without this mechanism, the industry will squander the real-life business programming skills that real-life businesses will ultimately need to succeed.

Perhaps this is why IBM has begun a major certification program for all Business Partners. Last May, IBM sent a letter to all of its Business Partners instructing them to fulfill IBM’s certification requirements. IBM maintains a site at http://www.softmall.ibm.com/certify that maps out the requirements for this professional certification. Anyone can go to this site to get a list of the objectives of IBM’s certification, to take a sample test, and even to register for taking the official test. IBM believes it must first certify all of its Business Partners to ensure that the technical skills, including programming expertise, are documented and up to par. However, IBM is not yet widely publicizing the advantage of this strategy in the programming marketplace. Indeed, there seems to be some fear by the Business Partners themselves that, if a list of certified programmers and technicians were made public, there would be a rush by headhunters to cherry pick these employees for the benefit of other, prospective, employers. Yet, from the view of programmers who need to distinguish themselves in a highly competitive market, certification may be exactly what is needed. If H.R. 3736 becomes law, the effects of immigration on the midrange programming community will be felt by a market that becomes increasingly diluted with highly technical personnel. In a time when even the U.S.

Congress is breaking down the barriers of immigration to allow new talent into the market, IBM certification may be the ultimate weapon for AS/400 professionals to finally get the recognition they deserve.

Thomas Stockwell

Thomas M. Stockwell is an independent IT analyst and writer. He is the former Editor in Chief of MC Press Online and Midrange Computing magazine and has over 20 years of experience as a programmer, systems engineer, IT director, industry analyst, author, speaker, consultant, and editor.  


Tom works from his home in the Napa Valley in California. He can be reached at ITincendiary.com.





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