The New England Council was honored to recently host a discussion of federal immigration policy with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. These two respected leaders highlighted the critical role that foreign-born workers play in our economy, filling important jobs throughout the workforce.
Many of these are foreign-born temporary workers — highly skilled professionals, such as scientists or engineers — who are recruited by employer sponsors to fill critical roles in our workforce on a short-term basis. Currently, there is an annual cap on the number of visas available for such skilled workers and that cap is reached well before employer needs are satisfied.
At the same time, every year, thousands of students from around the globe flock to New England to attend our many institutions of higher learning. Many of them come to this country and our region in particular to obtain degrees in science, engineering, or mathematics — the so-called "STEM" fields. They also are often forced to return to their native countries upon completing their degree because it is simply too difficult to stay in this country.
While we continue to send these individuals with advanced training and expertise back to other parts of the world, we continue to hear from employers that they struggle to find the skilled workers in the STEM fields to fill the positions that are becoming available in the 21st-century innovation economy. This simply does not make sense.
While there is great debate over how to reform our immigration system, few on either side of the aisle would argue that the time has come for some changes. The New England Council believes that there are several straightforward updates to the nation's visa programs that can be addressed on a bipartisan basis and will have a direct impact on the economic environment of New England.
One such change is increasing the limits on H-1B visas. The H-1B visa program allows employers to supplement their current workforce with highly skilled foreign workers. The visa must be used for staff in specialty occupations — those occupations requiring a great deal of specialized knowledge along with at least a bachelor's degree or its equivalent. The demand for workers under the H-1B visa program continues to grow. Yet, the limit on the number of H-1B visas issued is quickly reached each year, leaving employers unable to fill certain types of positions for which they cannot find candidates in the domestic workforce.
While raising the cap on the H-1B visa program would help address the need for highly skilled workers on the part of New England employers, other steps can also be taken. Congress recently considered legislation, the STEM Jobs Act, which would have increased the number of permanent resident "green cards" available to foreign-born graduates with advanced STEM degrees. Providing green cards for the top foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees in the STEM fields offers employers a way to address the skills gap they currently face. It also encourages foreign graduates to apply their skills in helping U.S. companies compete in the global economy, rather than sending U.S.-trained workers with those skills to employers in other countries. While the STEM Jobs Act failed to garner enough support, its consideration sends a strong message that Congress recognizes the urgency of addressing this important issue. We urge Congress to consider other pending legislation that addresses ways to retain foreign-born STEM graduates as economic assets in the United States.
There is no question that the global competition for workers with advanced STEM skills is fierce, and as the nation and the New England region continue on the path to economic recovery, we must seize on opportunities to retain the skilled work force needed to achieve that recovery. Adding tens of thousands of highly-skilled individuals to the workforce can only strengthen the region's economic position.
It is clear that the nation's current immigration framework does not fully recognize the role of immigrants in our economy. While agreement on comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely in the current political climate, Congress should take these simple steps to help close skills gaps and support economic growth.
James T. Brett is the 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 formed to promote economic growth.