The automaker Tesla says it was having problems filling some engineering positions with U.S. citizens, so the company took to the road to find what it needed.
The company held a job fair in the Mexican city of Monterrey for industrial engineers to fill positions at its Freemont, Calif., factory. The event was by appointment only, but dozens of Mexican engineers showed up uninvited.
Is there really a shortage of STEM candidates in the U.S.? Or is Tesla looking to hire Mexican engineers because they will work for less money?
Mexico boasts a substantial pool of experienced manufacturing engineers, with 19 automotive plants owned by global automakers including General Motors Co (GM.N), Ford Motor Co (F.N), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCHA.MI) and Volkswagen (VOWG_p.DE).
A steady tide of hopefuls showed up at the event unannounced and without an appointment, some having traveled hundreds of kilometers, mistakenly thinking it was an open recruiting fair. Several dozen were turned away.
Tesla gave them a brief explanation about the mix-up, said those being interviewed were often already weeks into their application processes, and directed them to email their resumes, according to more than a dozen mechanical, mechatronic, electrical and chemical engineers that Reuters spoke with outside the event.
Representatives from Tesla headquarters in California and recruiters in Monterrey declined to comment on the event or the company’s hiring plans in Mexico. Reporters were escorted off the premises by security.
The call from a top U.S. company to Mexican engineers contrasts with the White House’s cooler stance toward both Mexico and high-skilled immigrants.
In his first days in office, Trump pressured U.S. companies to stop moving manufacturing and jobs to lower cost Mexico. He also wants to overhaul a visa system that he says replaces Americans with workers from other countries, but shortages of engineers make it hard for technology companies to hire only Americans.
Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk is himself an immigrant from South Africa who sits on Trump’s business advisory council.
Tesla has been actively hiring in the past few months for assembly-line jobs at its Fremont plant, but has found that manufacturing engineers are in even shorter supply than software engineers in Silicon Valley.
Despite being turned away at the Monterrey event, most of the engineers, some with 20 years of experience under their belts, other fresh out of college, remained optimistic about their prospects. By evening the lobby of the Grand Fiesta Americana hotel in the northern city was abuzz with prospective candidates cradling beige folders holding their resumes.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there’s a shortage of American engineers and other STEM workers:
Numerous reports detail the growing concern of policymakers and industry leaders regarding a shortage in the STEM workforce believed necessary to sustain the U.S. innovation enterprise, global competitiveness, and national security. Most notable is the National Academies’ report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which called for improvements in kindergarten through 12th-grade science and mathematics education and increasing the attractiveness of higher education, among other recommendations. The report highlighted troubling issues in a number of areas: low STEM retention rates, a relative decline in the number of U.S. citizens enrolled in science and engineering graduate school, and lower percentages of STEM graduates than those of other developed countries. These sentiments were echoed in a 2012 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee which stated that the current STEM workforce was falling short of demand in both STEM and non-STEM occupations. According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the United States would need to increase its yearly production of undergraduate STEM degrees by 34 percent over current rates to match the demand forecast for STEM professionals.
But others question the motives of those who claim they have to hire foreign STEM workers because there aren’t enough qualified Americans to fill the positions.
In his recent book Falling Behind: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael Teitelbaum (Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School) shows that the U.S. has been through at least five STEM-related cycles since World War II. In each instance, alarms about a perceived shortage of STEM workers led to federal action to stimulate STEM research and education. But after the government’s stimulus ended, we were left with a surfeit of people with STEM degrees but no work commensurate with their training.
Far from “falling behind,” Teitelbaum shows that the U.S. currently has a surplus of people with STEM education. After surveying the research, he writes that America “produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more.”
In Tesla’s case, the company has very specific needs and it is entirely possible that they were unable to find exactly what they needed in the U.S. But this is a problem that is only going to get worse as globalization makes U.S. jobs available to the entire world.
People everywhere are getting better educated and becoming better trained for the kinds of jobs offered by international companies like Tesla. Americans are no longer competing just against Americans for good jobs, but also graduates and experienced workers from across the world.
Companies say this is necessary in order to hire the very best people so that they can remain competitive in a world market. All things being equal, this is probably true. But all things are not equal. The fact is, most foreign workers will work for less than American workers. And companies that cry about STEM “shortages” and hire foreign workers for less need to be shamed into changing their policies.