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Foreign Born STEM Professionals and Immigration Policy Stir Economy

by Michael Higham, published

foreign born STEM professionals

Economists are divided over the effects of foreign-born science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals. Although economics can be an objective study, it will remain unclear whether foreign born STEM professionals are filling the STEM workforce shortage or will displace native-born prospects and influence wages. It's a divisive topic, but is continually addressed by policymakers and researchers.

If the conclusion is that more foreign-born STEM professionals are required to fulfill job vacancies, then immigration policy is a large barrier.

H1-B work visas allow employers to employ skilled foreign workers. Currently, the limit on granting these visas is at 65,000 a year. The Hill reported that a bi-partisan bill is in the Senate to raise the number of visas to a "soft-cap" of 115,000 a year. It is a soft-cap in that the bill is flexible depending on economic demands, with an absolute limit of 300,000 a year. However, not all H1-B work visas are granted to STEM professionals.

Georgetown University pointed out the percentage of STEM workers who are foreign born, according to the 2008 Census:

foreign born STEM professionalsPresident Barack Obama alluded to the STEM workforce situation in his inaugural speech on January 21, saying:

"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 and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country."

Students visas expire and those students either obtain a work visa or leave the country.

Many foreign students study STEM subjects at American universities. For example, 40 percent of graduate students from UC Berkeley's College of Engineering are foreigners. By allowing foreign graduates of US universities, talent and potential innovation leaves the country.

The "talent gap" is the term used to describe the disparity between the workforce pool and employer demands. Georgetown University is projecting 2.4 million vacancies in STEM jobs by 2018, 65 percent which require at least a four-year degree. Tweet stat: Tweet

RAND Corporation contends that the US is not facing a significant shortage in the STEM workforce. RAND also states that the data does not provide clarity, stating, " the federal government needs to keep more-complete and more-consistent data."

As demand for STEM jobs increases, so does the demand for STEM education. By 2014, 45 states will adopt a new K-12 curriculum known as Common Core which shifts the focus towards global competitiveness and STEM subjects. The STEM movement is being promoted by education groups such Change the Equation, exposing the subjects to students at younger ages to spark lasting interest. Share Change the Equation: Tweet

The pending success of Common Core and education movements could have a profound impact on the amount of home-grown STEM talent for the future.

Walter Ewing of the Immigration Policy Center states that foreign-born STEM workers improve economic conditions. He sees current laws constraining potential impact:

"A 2009 study from the Technology Policy Institute found that, in the absence of limitations on green cards and H-1B temporary worker visas between 2003 and 2007, foreign graduates of U.S. universities in STEM fields would have raised the U.S. Gross Domestic Product by about $13.6 billion in 2008, and contributed $2.7 to $3.6 billion in taxes."

Ewing also notes a report from the US Chamber of Commerce concluding that foreign STEM professionals create jobs:

"Every foreign-born student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced degree and stays to work in STEM has been shown to create on average 2.62 jobs for American workers."

The discussion of how to fill the demands of STEM jobs will continue so long as technology continues to advance. The US government is showing momentum towards reliance on foreign born STEM professionals for fulfilling current and future demands. However, investing in STEM education and tailoring curriculum can also foster talent at home. The future of immigration policy is inherently tied to economic health more so than ever with the rise of STEM opportunities.

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