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.
The H-1B visa has been highly controversial for years. This fiscal year, Congress set a quota of 65,000 visas, which was snapped up immediately after they became available Oct.1. Now, US business is pleading for Congress to let in more such workers.
The US Chamber of Commerce, for instance, wants Congress to revisit the cap "to ensure American business has access to the talent it needs to help keep our economy strong."
That rationale makes no sense to the Programmers Guild and other groups that have sprung up to resist the tech visas. Since more than 100,000 American programmers are unemployed - and many more are underemployed - the existing 65,000 quota is inexcusably high, they argue. H-1B and L-1 visas are "American worker replacement programs," says the National Hire American Citizens Society.
Further, the H-1B program, set up in 1990, is flawed, critics charge. For example, employers are not required to recruit Americans before resorting to hiring H-1Bs, says Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis.
And the requirement that employers pay H-1Bs a "prevailing wage" is useless, he adds, because the law is riddled with loopholes. Nor are even any remaining regulations enforced.
The average wage for an American programmer runs about $60,000, says John Bauman, who set up the Organization for the Rights of American Workers. Employers pay H-1Bs an average $53,000.
A programmer, Mr. Bauman was out of work for 20 months before finally taking a job with a 40 percent pay cut. His experience is common enough that programmers are organizing to fight in Congress against H-1B and L-1 visas.
But they face an uphill battle, says Mr. Miano, as business groups are far better organized and funded than the smattering of programmer groups. "They have the best legislation money can buy," he says.
Miano sees such a dim future for programmers that he decided to enter law school. "I saw the handwriting on the wall," he says.