CEO Barry Zhang Says High Tech Manufacturing Companies Depend on Machine Operators from Abroad

Barry Zhang already had two degrees when he came to the United States from China to study at Princeton University. There he earned a PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering. His wife’s U.S. employer sponsored her for a green card, and Zhang gained residency as her dependent around the time he graduated, freeing him up to go into business for himself. Immediately after graduating, Zhang started a small but successful fiberoptics company that he sold a few years later to ADC. Three years later, he founded Princetel, an advanced manufacturing company that has grown to $10 million in revenues and employs 51 people. “I guess it’s in my blood,” Zhang says. “I never thought about finding a job — I just wanted to do something on my own.”

That’s a typical attitude among immigrants, Zhang says. “It sets you apart from the crowd. You’re by definition more risk taking,” he says. “It’s always been true — all these generations of immigrants, from the very beginning, they’ve always been harder working and more willing to take risks than people who’ve been here a generation or two or longer.” That’s good for employers, too, Zhang notes. His 51 employees come from 15 different countries, giving them a wide range of perspectives and making them more open-minded and more receptive to one another’s ideas. “It’s a melting pot,” Zhang says. “They’re more willing to work to understand one another — the tolerance level goes up a notch.”

We need [foreign workers] here, and we need a lot of them.

Despite its international workforce, Princetel is very much an American company. Princetel’s flagship technology is a fiberoptic connector that allows signals to be transmitted through rotating joints — a specialized application that’s won significant interest from the U.S. military. That will mean more jobs for Americans, Zhang says. As a supplier to the Department of Defense, he has no intention of offshoring his manufacturing facilities. “When you sell to the U.S. or European military, it’s usually not a good idea to have your product made in a third-world country.”

In order to keep up with foreign rivals, however, Zhang says American advanced manufacturers need easier access to global labor pools. America’s young people are no longer used to doing things with their hands, and that makes it harder to train them up as master machinists, or to teach them to program advanced factory machinery effectively. “Our own education structure doesn’t produce enough of the workers we actually need,” Zhang says. “The manual skills have largely been lost.” He says foreign workers have these skills. “We need them here, and we need a lot of them.”

Walk through Princetel’s factory floor, Zhang adds, and you’ll find most of the machine operators are foreign-born. Some came through the diversity lottery; others had family connections to the United States. None of them, however, were brought in by Princetel, because while there are visa systems in place for highly skilled and educated immigrants, there’s no viable system for bringing in less-skilled workers for factory-floor jobs. That’s something Zhang wants changed in order to ensure a supply of less-skilled but still urgently needed workers for the advanced manufacturing sector. “There should be a policy for industry to be able to recruit the kind of talent they need,” Zhang says. “We need to open the door to people who may not have a postgraduate education or unique skills, but who can still contribute a lot.”

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