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Endangered species: US programmers

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Say goodbye to the American software programmer. Once the symbols of hope as the nation shifted from manufacturing to service jobs, programmers today are an endangered species. They face a challenge similar to that which shrank the ranks of steelworkers and autoworkers a quarter century ago: competition from foreigners.

Some experts think they'll become extinct within the next few years, forced into unemployment or new careers by a combination of offshoring of their work to India and other low-wage countries and the arrival of skilled immigrants taking their jobs.

Not everybody agrees programmers will disappear completely. But even the optimists believe that many basic programming jobs will go to foreign nations, leaving behind jobs for Americans to lead and manage software projects. The evidence is already mounting that many computer jobs are endangered, prompting concern about the future of the nation's high-tech industries.

Since the dotcom bust in 2000-2001, nearly a quarter of California technology workers have taken nontech jobs, according to a study of 1 million workers released last week by Sphere Institute, a San Francisco Bay Area public policy group. The jobs they took often paid less. Software workers were hit especially hard. Another 28 percent have dropped off California's job rolls altogether. They fled the state, became unemployed, or decided on self-employment.

The problem is not limited to California.

Although computer-related jobs in the United States increased by 27,000 between 2001 and 2003, about 180,000 new foreign H-1B workers in the computer area entered the nation, calculates John Miano, an expert with the Programmers Guild, a professional society. "This suggests any gain of jobs have been taken by H-1B workers," he says.

H-1B visas allow skilled foreigners to live and work in the US for up to six years. Many are able to get green cards in a first step to citizenship. Another visa, L-1, allows multinational companies to transfer workers from foreign operations into the US.

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