If Skilled Workers Don’t Come, the U.S. Loses

As Washington continues to debate immigration, one aspect of our immigration laws that are sometimes overlooked is that of high-skilled immigrants seeking to work in the US. Immigrants with education and experience in the STEM fields can apply for an H-1B visa, of which there are 85,000 visas available on a yearly basis. These visas allow workers to stay in the country for up to six years, as long as they’re sponsored by a US company. These visas are very important to US tech companies that have difficulty finding the right engineering and computer science talents needed to fill their open positions.

H-1B visas are an essential means in keeping the US tech talent pool as high as possible, which is why the cap on these visas at 85,000 is much too low by many estimates. The job market for high-tech positions is growing, with not enough people to fill those jobs. In 2012, Silicon Valley jobs increased by 8.7%, adding about 92,000 jobs. In the STEM fields, job listings outnumber unemployed people by almost 2-1, showing an extreme shortage in the number of applicants to fill the ever expanding pool of tech jobs.

Another factor of an increase in H-1B visas is that holders of these visas typically earn more than native-born Americans in the same positions, which suggests that these workers are among the higher skilled. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the average H-1B visa holder earns about $76,000 a year compared to $67,000 a year for those born in America. This extra earning power is good for the economy, injecting more dollars back into the economy through increased spending and tax revenue.

The earnings differential provides further evidence that these immigrants are in high demand, as the laws of supply and demand tell us the skills these visas holders possess are in higher demand than those of many born in the United States. A study from the James A. Baker III Institute shows that the United States economy sees an influx of $38-75 billion annually thanks to the influx of high-skilled immigrants.

These new Immigrants are also entrepreneurs that contribute new innovations. A Harvard Business School study shows a marked increase in patent filings as H-1B visa applicants enter the country, as immigrants account for the majority of the net increase of scientists and engineers since 1995. This increase in scientists and engineers has sparked a boom in startups and entrepreneurship.  In fact, in the last decade, 25% of new high-tech startups came from immigrants, according to one study.

When these skilled workers are not allowed to enter the U.S., they ply their field elsewhere, which means that commerce, employment and capital are deployed elsewhere.   The U.S. loses. In fact, without access to quality engineering and high-tech talent in the US, many tech companies have to expand their workforce overseas. Microsoft, for one, has opened training centers and offices in Vancouver and Hong Kong to find the talent they need.

If America is to remain successful, it should consider nixing the cap on H-1B visas, keeping American tech jobs in the United States.

Zack Christenson writes on digital tech issues for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.