PRO JO: Immigration bill must address skills gap
As originally appearing in The Providence Journal

By JAMES T. BRETT

After years of debate and discussion about the need to update our nation’s immigration system, the issue is finally on the front burner on Capitol Hill; comprehensive reform is on the horizon in 2013. From a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens to border security, there are some challenging issues that 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 in 2008-2018, compared with 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. This skills gap threatens not only U.S. economic growth, but also its ability to compete globally. Take engineering: In 2008, a mere 4 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. were awarded in engineering, compared to 31 percent in China.

Few regions of the country feel the burden of this skills gap more than New England, where we have a high concentration of high-tech employers – from software developers, to life-science companies, to cutting-edge engineering and research firms. Our region has 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?

In Rhode Island, for example, there are currently 2.4 STEM jobs for every one unemployed person. It is estimated that by 2018, there will be some 26,000 open STEM jobs in Rhode Island. However, the education system is simply not producing enough workers prepared to fill these positions.

New England also hosts some of the world’s most distinguished colleges and universities – institutions that attract students from around the globe to receive top-notch advanced training in the STEM fields. Many of these international students graduate with hopes of remaining in the U.S., but can’t obtain the necessary visas or green cards to do so. Rather than remaining here to work for growing U.S. companies, they return to their home countries to work for our competitors.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition of senators introduced legislation that would go a long way toward addressing 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 H1-B visas that let employers supplement their current workforce with highly skilled foreign workers in specialty occupations. The current cap is usually reached early each year, and the New England Council has long advocated increasing it. The I-Squared bill would also increase the number of permanent resident “green cards” for foreign-born graduates with advanced STEM degrees.

The I-Squared bill also recognizes the need for a longer-term solution to the STEM skills gap and the importance of developing a domestic pipeline of U.S.-born workers with advanced skills and training. To that end, the legislation reallocates the fees collected from H1-B visas and STEM green cards fees to fund a grant program to promote STEM education and worker retraining to be administered by the states.

The I-Squared Bill has won the support of businesses large and small as well as immigration advocates, and its sponsors on both sides of the aisle are working to have its provisions included in any comprehensive immigration reform plan that moves forward.

As our economy evolves, we will need to ensure a steady stream of workers skilled in STEM disciplines, and filling the gap between availability and need will be critical to New England’s economic growth. Congress has taken the first important steps toward closing that gap by introducing the I-Squared bill and opening a dialogue on immigration issues that include retaining international graduates. The New England Council is encouraged by these developments, and urges leaders in Washington to continue working to nurture the American economy.

James T. Brett is president and chief executive of The New England Council, a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and other public and private organizations throughout New England, formed to promote the region’s economic growth.

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