Federal immigration legislation must address STEM skills gap
As originally appearing in The Springfield Republican

After years of discussion about the need to update our immigration system, the issue is finally on the so-called “front burner” in Congress and comprehensive reform is on the horizon.

From a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens to border security, there are a number of challenging issues our leaders in Washington must tackle.

There is, however, an additional issue that any comprehensive immigration reform plan should also address: the shortage of educated, highly skilled workers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that STEM jobs will grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared to just 9.8-percent growth in non-STEM jobs. However, at the current pace, the U.S. simply will not produce enough workers to fill the jobs.

Few regions feel the burden of this skills gap more than New England, where we have a high concentration of high-tech employers. Our region is home to a thriving innovation economy that will drive growth and create jobs as the economy continues to recover. Yet the question remains, will we have the pipeline of skilled workers to fill those jobs?

Here in Massachusetts, there are currently 2.1 STEM jobs for every one unemployed person. It is estimated that by 2018, there will be some 300,000 open STEM jobs in Massachusetts. But the education system is simply not producing enough workers prepared to fill these positions.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators introduced legislation that would address this issue. The Immigration Innovation Act, or the “I-Squared Bill,” seeks to close the skills gap with both a short-term and a long-term solution.

In the short-term, the I-Squared Bill would increase the cap on H-1B visas that allow employers to supplement their current workforce with highly skilled foreign workers in specialty occupations, and would increase the number of permanent resident “green cards” available to foreign-born graduates with advanced STEM degrees.

The I-Squared bill also addresses the longer term goal of developing a domestic pipeline of STEM workers by reallocating the fees collected from H-1B visas and STEM green cards fees to fund state administered programs to promote STEM education and worker retraining.

As our economy evolves, we must ensure a pipeline of workers skilled in the STEM disciplines, and filling the gap between availability and need will be critical to New England’s continued economic growth.

James T. Brett is president and chief executive officer of the New England Council.

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