As the new year begins, our region continues to see slow but steady economic growth. The national unemployment rate has hit a five-year low, and throughout New England, employers are beginning to add to their workforces.
Last year was frustrating in many ways as we saw our leaders in Washington struggle to reach compromise on critical fiscal issues. The year ended, however, with an encouraging show of bipartisanship as Congress reached a budget compromise that will give businesses a degree of certainty this year.
We hope we will see more of this willingness to compromise in the year ahead. The New England Council — the nation’s oldest regional business association — believes that there are several areas where Congressional action could lead to tremendous economic growth.
•Immigration reform: One of the biggest challenges for many New England employers is a shortage of skilled workers in the “STEM” fields: science, technology, engineering and math. Yet these are the fields where we expect to see the most growth in the years ahead. It is estimated that by 2018, there will be some 26,000 open STEM jobs in Rhode Island. Efforts to reform our nation’s immigration system present our leaders in Congress with the opportunity to address this problem.
The Senate took significant strides last year in passing a comprehensive immigration reform package that includes measures to address the STEM skills gap. The bill increases the cap on H-1B visas, allowing more foreign-born STEM workers to remain in the U.S. The legislation also reallocates fees from those visas to support STEM education with the goal of developing a domestic pipeline of STEM workers for the future.
Unfortunately, immigration reform efforts stalled in the House of Representatives in 2013. We urge the House to take action on this important issue in 2014. Addressing the shortage of highly skilled STEM workers through thoughtful immigration reform will help our region’s many high-tech employers to grow and thrive.
•Energy efficiency: One of the most significant challenges for New England businesses is the high cost of energy. While we cannot change our region’s harsh winter weather and limited native fuel sources, one thing we can do is increase efficiency, which will bring down our costs in the long term.
Last year, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen partnered with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman to introduce bipartisan, deficit-neutral legislation that would do just that. The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act creates a national strategy to increase the use of energy efficiency technologies through a national model building energy code, and creates a financing program for commercial building efficiency projects.
While the bill was introduced on the Senate floor in 2013, it was not put to a vote. We are hopeful that the Senate will return to this important legislation and that Congress will take action to increase energy efficiency and lower costs in 2014.
•Investment in research: New England prides itself on being a global center for innovation. Our region’s prestigious research universities and teaching hospitals are home to cutting-edge research initiatives that produce many transformative innovations in energy, medicine, defense, and technology. These institutions rely heavily on funding from a variety of federal agencies to conduct this research, and so federal spending cuts in recent years — and in particular last year’s harsh sequestration cuts — have had a devastating effect.
The research conducted in our region’s research institutions not only lead to new treatments, products, and technologies, but it also has a remarkable economic impact. For example, the National Institutes of Health alone invested over $165 million in Rhode Island in 2010, producing over 2,600 new jobs.
An investment in research is truly an investment in job creation and economic growth. The recent budget compromise was a step in the right direction, restoring a significant portion of the sequestration cuts. We are hopeful that in 2014 Congress will choose to invest more of those federal funds in research — it’s an investment that will yield tremendous returns.
Of course there are many important issues before Congress in the year ahead, not the least of which are ongoing efforts to address our fiscal challenges. However, these are three areas where the New England Council believes compromise is possible and where action will result in economic growth here in New England and throughout the nation.
James T. Brett is the president and chief executive officer of the New England Council, a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth.