A phone interview is scheduled for a Thursday, 8:30 AM. His cellphone has a 781 area code, but I am assured by the recruiter that he is very close to Chicago, in one of the suburbs. I ask which suburb. “It’s one I’m actually not familiar with, called Bloomington,” replies the recruiter.
“Bloomingdale?” I ask. No, I am assured, it’s Bloomington. No question about it.
I inform the recruiter (who clearly couldn’t be bothered to look up the location of his candidate) that Bloomington, Illinois, is almost 150 miles southwest of Chicago, and that Bloomington, Indiana, is almost 250 miles southeast. I reminded him that we’re not offering a relo for this position. Don’t worry about it, I am told, this candidate knows you’re located in downtown Chicago and is aware that he will have to get to the job on his own. He can start as soon as Monday.
On the appointed Thursday at 8:30 AM I called the 781 number. In the background I heard children chattering and a TV with some musical program. The candidate – clearly an eastern Asian man, most likely from the region around India – stepped into another room and we conversed. Quickly it becomes clear that, while he is well-spoken, knowledgeable and capable his skill set balance is not right for our role. In the course of the interview I did ask him about his phone number: How was it that he acquired a Massachusetts area code?
His explanation was by far the most interesting part of our encounter.
It Starts Way Before The H-1B
For Jim Turnquist, director of career services at Michigan Technological University, this is a simple matter of market dynamics. “The sources of our students are #1 Michigan, #2 China. #3 Wisconsin, #4 India. Many foreign countries send their folks over to get their IT degrees, their engineering degrees, then they’re pushing to get some kind of job here for a year or two.” It’s not some kind of foreign invasion, he adds; there are plenty of engineering positions open. The key becomes helping students understand what they can do with an engineering degree, so that they will be motivated to get one.
The H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. These occupations include architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, biotechnology, medicine, and many others. Grantees of H-1B visas are required to have attained a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent as a minimum level of education, and in some cases hold a state licensure if their field requires it. (Interestingly, fashion models fall under the H-1B auspices, but they must only be “of distinguished merit and ability.”)
Step away from the politically charged immigration-related arguments surrounding the H-1B visa and simply envision the potential for a young engineering graduate of any nationality with a specialty in software engineering or another in-demand field. One can easily see a life of hopping between positions in geographically varied locations, developing one’s expertise as well as a network of other engineers and executives in various corporations. Quality work performance begets quality positions, which brings increased income. Being in-demand means one can, to a reasonable degree, write one’s own ticket as far as where one wants to work, and why.
For the software engineering candidate I interviewed, that Massachusetts phone number came from the second position he held in the US. He and his family have chosen to move around the US and see as much of the country as they can while they are here. His children are young so schooling is not an issue. He told me that, as a software engineer, “there is greater innovation still in the US, and I want to develop my skills in this environment.”
This kind of career path is a rarity today: relative flexibility and mobility that attends an in-demand skill set and pays a premium, with an almost limitless ability to further develop one’s abilities. This should attract any ambitious young person today, especially as we are becoming more and more of a high-tech society.
While Mr. Turnquist points out that grade schools and especially high schools don’t do a good job of defining all that an engineer can be, he sees the problem even more simply. “Why aren’t there more engineers? Because there aren’t any TV shows about them,” he says. In the same way the the various crime scene TV dramas have exposed the world to the (frankly nonexistent) glamour of forensic pathology, if there was a show that portrayed how cool engineers are, says Mr. Turnquist, perhaps our engineering schools would have more students, domestic and otherwise.
Mythbusters is cool, but it’s practically the only one.
As I concluded my conversation with the software engineering candidate the sound of his children in the background reverberated through my mind. At some point he will show his kids on a map of the US all the places they had lived when they were little. They, in turn, will tell their friends. As his kids grow into adulthood perhaps they, too, will start their careers traveling to different places around the world, contributing their skills and learning while they’re earning.
And the world, already shrunken significantly by communications technology developed by engineers, will become even smaller still.