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 must tackle.
But there’s an additional issue that any comprehensive reform plan should address: the shortage of educated, highly skilled workers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.
The Commerce Department estimates that STEM jobs will grow 17 percent by 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent in non-STEM jobs. But at the current pace, the U.S. will simply not produce enough workers to fill the jobs. This skills gap threatens not only our nation’s economic growth, but also our ability to compete globally.
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. But will we have the pipeline of skilled workers to fill those jobs?
In Massachusetts, there are 2.1 STEM jobs for every unemployed person. It’s estimated that by 2018, there will be some 300,000 open STEM jobs in Massachusetts. However, schools are simply not producing enough workers who are prepared to fill them.
New England is also home to some of the world’s premier colleges and universities, which attract students from around the globe to receive 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. So, they return to their home countries to work for our competitors.
This is a problem that needs both short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, we must increase the cap on H-1B visas that allow employers to supplement their current workforces with highly skilled foreign workers in specialty occupations. For the long term, we must work to develop a domestic pipeline of highly skilled workers by investing in STEM education at all levels.
The bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package introduced in the Senate last month takes significant steps toward addressing these goals. The legislation increases the cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 per year, and allocates the $500 visa fee to a STEM Education and Training Account, which will provide scholarships and grants to support STEM education.
The New England Council also supports another bi-partisan proposal introduced earlier this year, the Immigration Innovation Act, known as I-Squared. It would increase the cap on H-1Bs to 120,000 and implement an increased fee of $1,000 per visa. The collected fees would be allocated to state-administered programs to promote STEM education and worker retraining.
Regardless of which proposal is included in the final bill, the only way to truly address the shortage of highly skilled workers is to address both the immediate needs of employers and the longer term demands of our growing innovation economy. We’re encouraged that leaders from both parties have acknowledged the importance of tackling this challenge in the proposals they have put forth, and urge them to continue to work toward meaningful reform.
James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council, a non-partisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England that promotes economic growth.