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Clogging the Brain Drain

July 19, 2011

Last week, the US Department of Commerce released a report on current and future trends in STEM jobs. The report, “STEM: Good Jobs Now and For the Future”  highlights that STEM jobs have been growing at a rate almost 3 times that of non-STEM fields, but that workers in these fields earn a huge premium over workers in non-STEM positions. Researchers found that “STEM workers enjoy large earnings premiums…most predominantly for workers with less than a college degree,” approximately 9% of the STEM employee population.

 At the same time, however, a “much larger payoff tends to come when a STEM major goes to work in a STEM job.” According to the report, STEM majors in STEM jobs earn approximately 20% more than those who have no STEM association in either their major or profession. When it comes to employment in the STEM fields, there is plenty of room (and benefit) for all citizens.

Despite the availability of these STEM positions, regardless of educational attainment, employers are still struggling to fill these slots. The problem? Today’s workers often fall short of the high-skill requirements needed for many of these occupations, leaving a trying gap between jobs we have and jobs we can obtain.

The new solution, according to many, is immigration reform. The United States currently brings in huge numbers of foreign nationals to our Universities and graduate programs. International student applications to US graduate programs went up 9% this year, with an 12% increase in engineering, physical, and earth sciences according to the Council of Graduate Schools. This in itself is not a bad thing; the problem arises when these highly educated inviduals are unable to stay in the US after graduation due to immigration restrictions. Few have any choice but to return home and use their new education for their home country, creating the “Brain Drain” many STEM researchers lament. Reformers are now lobbying for new laws that would allow these students to stay in the US, work for US companies—and contribute to the US economy via taxes and product development.

The battle cry for immigration reform is coming from across the nation and federal government. At the National Journal  Innovation Works event last week in Washington, D.C., panelists such as Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association and Dr. Arun Majumdar of the US Department of Energy repeatedly voiced the opinion that immigration policy reforms would only benefit US productivity and innovation in the STEM fields. Former Chair of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan called the H1-B visa program “a disgrace” in a recent interview. And two U.S Commerce Secretaries–current Secretary Gary Locke and Carlos Gutierrez, Secretary for George W. Bush–recently published an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution titled, “Building Competitiveness Through Immigration Reform.” Furthermore, support for this reform is coming from both sides of the aisle, as President Obama stated in a speech this past May.

Many claim that giving American jobs to foreigners displaces hard-working U.S. citizens. However, the U.S. has always been a country that values top talent and equality of opportunity. By nationalizing foreign graduates of US schools, we have the opportunity to retain this top talent in theUS, working for the benefit of our nation and the greater international community.  As one of the Innovation Works panelists remarked, “whoever has the best educated talent in this world is going to be globally competitive…the U.S. has always done that in the past, and we need to keep doing that.” Highly educated STEM students occupying STEM jobs could be the key to the future of American prosperity on the global stage. We may just have to change our lens on immigration policy to get there.

Immigration may not be the way to keep America competitive on the world stage, but it is certainly one possible solution out of many that deserve further investigation.

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