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It’s time to stem the loss of STEM graduates

July 08, 2014

“The US has the best research universities in the world, which is why we attract the best students from around the world. Forcing them to leave, rather than allowing them to stay and add their skills and knowledge to our economy, is one of the most short-sighted policies we have.” —John Hennessy, President, Stanford University


America’s top universities are busy graduating a new crop of highly-skilled scientists, engineers and mathematicians — more than half of them foreign-born — but many of them will not remain in the US after graduation. The fact is, many of our foreign-born students will accept jobs elsewhere because current immigration policy makes it difficult for them to stay and work.

Why would we let some of the best and brightest graduates of our top universities leave? The rational, as it is applied across all spectrums of immigration policy by a myriad of political pundits, appears simple: “Immigrants take jobs from Americans.” It’s a supply and demand argument that claims jobs filled by these highly skilled graduates could have been filled by unemployed Americans.

However, the reality contradicts these claims. Foreign-born STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates are actually proven job creators. Arguably, they are America’s single strongest economic driver in the modern era. A report by the Technology CEO Council stated that entrepreneurial “start-ups are disproportionately founded and supported” by foreign-born individuals. According to a report by The New American Economy, 40 percent of the largest US companies were founded by immigrants or first-generation immigrants, including many of the hottest tech startups. A recent example, Whatsapp, which sold to Facebook for $19 billion, was founded by a Ukrainian immigrant. My own company, Mediaocean, was founded by an immigrant more than 40 years ago.

Furthermore, hiring these foreign STEM graduates is anything but cheap. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 2.5 computer science openings for every graduate. In fact, the top five largest technology companies in the US have over 10,000 combined unfilled computer science openings. These statistics inspired CEOs from many of our largest tech companies and trade associations to write an open letter to President Obama and Congress asking for a reformed immigration policy. Companies need to subsidize hired workers through a costly and complex immigration process stuck in a bygone era of bureaucratic paperwork with little automation.

As global competition for STEM talent increases, other countries are attempting to capitalize on our dysfunction. One need look no further than the billboards Canada has placed along our technology corridors for evidence of this. Saudi Arabia and other countries are building national laboratory systems similar to our own with an emphasis on recruiting US-trained scientists.

So, how do we solve this problem? It begins with the H1-B visa. H1-B is the designation for short–term, skilled workers visa in the US. Applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree under a broad list of majors, including some liberal arts, business and STEM majors. The amount of H1-B visas is capped at 65,000 per year for bachelor-degreed applicants with another 20,000 reserved for master’s degrees. This cap was put in place 10 years ago and has not grown to meet the demand, which is estimated at anywhere from two to three times this amount, according to the report by The New American Economy. The US should double the amounts of H1-B visas given every year while increasing the fees substantially, from the $325 an applicant pays today to $1,500 or more. The difference in fees should be used to help fund scholarships for US-born students to pursue STEM degrees.

Even once an employee gets an H1-B visa, there can still be issues. If an H1-B visa holder loses their job today, they need to leave the country if they are unable to immediately find a new sponsor. There is no grace period whatsoever. It again appears short-sighted to lose a highly-skilled worker due to temporary employment status. Work permits should be granted to any foreign students that graduate with a degree from an accredited four-year US university in a STEM field. After working for four years in a STEM field, they should be allowed to self-petition for permanent residency (as opposed to employer-sponsored). This way we keep the brightest people here, but they are free to change jobs or move to new locations as they desire.

Finally, we should create a special visa designation for foreign technology entrepreneurs who wish to relocate their business to the US. This designation should be limited in scope and require the business to have enough capital resources to be a net job creator. As President Obama said last year, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” Now is the time to get the politicians to act on this common sense issue.

Via Gigaom