The United States Needs More Skilled Foreign Workers
Despite what the current unemployment numbers suggest, the United States (U.S.) still needs highly skilled foreign workers and they need to be encouraged to stay for longer periods.
The U.S. prides itself as being a country built by immigrants and the great work ethic that has built this country. According to a study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the expansion of the U.S. economy during the last decade of the 20th and the first part of the 21st centuries would not have been possible without immigration. Immigrants are valuable to our economy by filling an increasing number of jobs in an expanding job market, by filling jobs in specific areas where local resources are scarce, and by taking on jobs which the local labor force are not willing to fill. Statistics reveal how important foreign labor sources are to economic growth in the country. While foreign-born residents made up only 14 percent of the work force in 2002, they accounted for 51 percent of the growth in the labor force between 1996 and 2002 (Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 2003).
Even though it is clear that immigration helped sustain the rapid economic growth from 1996 to 2000, attracting the immigration of highly skilled workers is also important during periods of economic slowdown as we are now experiencing. To help assure this, immigration policy needs to support and attract the foreign-born workforce that is required to help the U.S. economy recover. One area of immigration policy that was designed to help employers meet the demand for highly skilled workers is the H-1B visa program. However, this is a temporary solution allowing only short-term employment to temporarily fill gaps in skill requirements. The program sets a limit of 65,000 visas per year. This arbitrary limit had to be increased several times to meet shortfalls in supply. Other than in the years 2001 to 2003, when the cap was increased, employers demand far exceeded the quota. Several studies have been conducted which show that increasing the number of highly skilled foreign workers in an organization leads to new employment opportunities (American Immigration Council, 2011). This opportunity for creating employment is not only threatened by the short period of time H-1B visa holders stay in the U.S., but also by the artificial limits imposed on the number of visas issued.
Some say that the U.S. needs to fix the legal immigration system, as it is currently hard to find skilled workers for many jobs, including those in the technologically advancing manufacturing sectors. Even though the U.S. has and continues to produce skilled workers from its citizenship and other permanent residents, industry leaders are frustrated with a continued shortfall in skills that match demand. As an example from a recent ABC news article, Martin Daum, a senior executive with Daimler Trucks, says "that America produces highly educated professionals, but knowledge can be lacking when it comes to hiringthe better skill sets of Mexican workers makes it easier to ramp up production at his company’s factories in Mexico than those in the United States." (Martinez, 2011).
When looking at a shortfall in highly skilled workers, we can look to education as a contributing factor. Many studies have been conducted on the U.S. education system compared to other countries. One such study conducted by National Defense University's Industrial College of the Armed Forces concludes that comparatively lower education standards in the U.S. are threatening competitiveness. In a review of several education facilities throughout the world it was found that in the most critical areas for development of skilled workers—math, science and reading—the U.S. lags behind other nations (Gropman, 2008). Despite spending more on secondary school education per student than most other countries, Gropman goes on to say that the U.S. continuously under performs other countries on international standardized tests. Despite controversy around the consistency of the testing used for comparison between the various countries, there remains little doubt that, with the superior resources the U.S. invests in education, their student population should be performing better. We could certainly benefit from the immigration of skilled educators from those countries that show higher test scores.
American industry has and continues to be highly critical of the effect immigration policy has on their competitiveness. The policy has acted to block visas for skilled personnel urgently needed by companies and other organizations. This not only effects U.S. born companies, but foreign companies anxious to grow their operations here. A frustrating example is the experience shared by Christian Turnig, an executive from German company ThyssenKrupp. He complains that even though finding skilled workers is an issue, he is willing to provide training.
However, he could not provide the required training to his workers in his Alabama offices. Rather, he had to send hundreds of employees to Germany for months of training because he was unable to get Visas to bring the skilled trainers from Germany to the U.S., as he would have preferred (Martinez, 2011). The case continues to be made also for policy to allow longer-term visas to be granted for skilled workers. Indeed, as reported by The New York Times, companies in the U.S. have been begging the government to offer more visas providing permanent residence status. Their argument being that even when they can get the workers they need on H-1B visas, the country looses the competitive advantage by forcing the immigrants to return home (Preston, 2011). It is widely considered that the current ceiling of 140,000 green cards per year does not meet the requirements of American industry for the full employment of the highly skilled work force they need. The pressure is so high to fill the needs that House Representative Luis V. Gutierrez raises his concern that legislation must be fixed so that immigrants and employers are not tempted to use un-official, or illegal channels (Preston, 2011).
We know from experience that the U.S. economy benefits by letting skilled foreign workers immigrate. In addition, there are great benefits to encouraging foreign students to stay on after they have graduated. The need is so great, that even President Obama states that we must encourage:
Foreign students to stay in the U.S. and contribute to our economy by stapling a green card to the diplomas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), PhDs and select STEM Masters Degrees students so that they will stay, contribute to the American economy, and become Americans over time (Packer, 2011).
There is no more important area of our economy that benefits from the skills and expertise of highly skilled foreign nationals emigrating to the U.S than technology startup companies. According to the National Venture Capital Association, immigrants have started 25 percent of all venture-backed U.S. Public companies. These companies employ 220,000 people in the U.S and include Google, eBay, Yahoo!, Sun Microsystems and Intel. Furthermore, inventors who have immigrated to the U.S. have been responsible for more than a quarter of global patent applications (Packer, 2011).
There are clear lessons to be learned here about the benefits from encouraging not only immigration of highly skilled individuals, but also about the importance to encourage them to stay, so that they can contribute to increasing the competitive advantage of American industry and to creating employment for others, including U.S. nationals. It is clear that many industry leaders are in support of hiring more immigrants, as it is clear many sectors, especially those with emerging technologies have much to gain from the skills and knowledge immigrants can bring. To support this pent up demand, there needs to be fundamental changes to existing visa systems. The U.S. needs more skilled workers to receive permanent visas and with less wait time. The top priority must be given to attract those immigrants with graduate degrees in the STEM fields, especially those who are receiving degrees in the U.S., but only have student visas. A significant step has been made recently which shows the general acceptance that things need to change. A bill was presented to Congress which changes current immigration legislation to allow more highly skilled immigrants from India and China to become permanent residents. The consensus was impressive, with the House of Representatives putting aside bipartisan bickering and voting 389 to 15 in support of the bill on November 29, 2011. Currently, the immigration laws limit each country annually to no more than 7 percent of the total limit of 140,000 green cards. Not surprisingly, this policy is not considered equitable when equally applied to countries with large populations, such as India and China, to those with small populations. The new bill makes a small, but logical change to the rules. Over a three year transition period, all employment related green cards will be issued in order of application approval (Preston, 2011). Unfortunately, the bill is not enough to meet the needs of industry. It does not increase the limit, rather the bill just redistributes where the immigrants originate, with India and China being the most affected.
The U.S. is not the only country in the world that relies on immigration for economic growth. It has a history of mobility of labor between the separate states for over a century. Unlike European and Asian countries, the U.S. has had its own source of migratant labor within its borders. However, the benefits of this mobility have in recent decades been leveraged in Europe and Asia. The European Union has free mobility of labor between its member countries, thus allowing skills to go where they are most in demand and required. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has in place free trade agreements that guarantee the free mobility of labor between member countries and to a certain extent between their neighbors China, India and Australia. For both Europe and Asia a primary reason for improving access to labor has been a policy of improving international competitiveness and economies of scale. Instead of competing industries in different countries, the regions can cooperate and focus on areas of strength in their industrial sectors. What is a challenge these countries face which the U.S. does not are language barriers. To overcome this, the common second language for many skilled citizens of ASEAN and European Union countries is English. From a perspective that nations will continue to compete more and more for skilled workers, the U.S. is at an advantage as being the largest native English speaking country. As nations reevaluate their policies on immigration in an increasingly globally competitive landscape, they will be struggling to compete for the skilled resources necessary to maintain economic growth. In a study commissioned by The Migration Policy Institute, they conclude that even though immigration policy change is a political challenge in every country in their study, it is important that the immigrants' needs and requirements are included in any discussion or planning for policy change. Indeed, how governments deal with immigration will be intricately tied to global economic success (Hochschild & Mollenkopf, 2008). In general, all developed nations look to immigration to supplement their employment needs. In the case of skilled labor, countries that permit employment-based immigration usually identify particular skills or economic sectors experiencing labor shortages. In the current recessionary environment, most countries are focusing on the recruitment of highly skilled migrants while looking to provide employment for nationals in areas where skill sets of the unemployed match requirements. Indeed, some countries maintain immigration policies tied directly to employment needs as dictated by changing labor conditions.
As we have seen, the U.S. has always been dependent on immigration for its success. In the current difficult economic times, this is still the case. Perhaps there is reduced need and benefit from immigration of people without the skills necessary to build a technological advanced nation. However, it is clear that in the U.S. policymakers are listening to the leadership in government and in industry: The United States needs more skilled foreign workers to help advance industry and to support sustained economic and employment growth.
American Immigration Council (2011, March 30). The U.S. Economy Still Needs Highly Skilled Foreign Workers In [Electronic version] Retrieved from: http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/docs/u.s._economy_still_needs_highly_skilled_foreign_workers.pdf
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas (2003). U.S. Immigration and Economic Growth: Putting Policy on Hold. Southwest Economy(6). Retrieved from: http://dallasfed.org/research/swe/2003/swe0306a.html
Gropman, A. L. (2008, June). Waning Education Standards Threaten U.S. Competitiveness. National Defense Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2008/june/pages/waning2235.aspx
Hochschild, J. L., & Mollenkopf, J. (2008). The Complexities of Immigration: Why Western Countries Struggle with Immigration Politics and Policies. Retrieved from: www.migrationpolicy.org/transatlantic/docs/hochschild-final.pdf
Martinez, L. (2011, October 7). ABC News Blogs [Foreign CEOs: Hard to Find Skilled US Workers]. Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/10/foreign-ceos-hard-to-find-skilled-us-workers/
Packer, T. (2011, July 21). Immigration Impact [U.S. Commerce Secretaries Highlight Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform]. Retrieved from: http://immigrationimpact.com/2011/07/21/u-s-commerce-secretaries-highlight-economic-benefits-of-immigration-reform/
Preston, J. (2011, November 29). The New York Times [Highly Skilled May Wait Less for Visas]. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/30/us/green-card-backlog-may-ease-for-some-from-china-and-india.html?_r=1