The Role of Foreign Workers in the Innovation Economy

Thursday, November 29, 2012 - 7:00pm


In February of 2011, President Barack Obama attended a small dinner with several Silicon Valley executives. Seated between Apple founder Steve Jobs and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the conversation quickly turned to the large shortage of trained engineers in the United States, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs reportedly put the case bluntly to the President, stating that he employs 700,000 factory workers in China because he cannot recruit 30,000 engineers in the United States.

Similar stories of skills gaps are found at companies large and small all over the US economy. Microsoft currently has 3,400 job openings for engineers, software developers, and researchers that it cannot fill, an increase of 34% over its openings from last year. A June 2011 study by McKinsey & Company found that more than one in every four science and engineering firms report difficulty hiring. And a recent survey of national job posting data revealed that there are currently 1.9 job openings for every unemployed worker in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”). The US government estimates that jobs in STEM fields have grown three times faster than jobs in the rest of the US economy over the last 10 years, and expects STEM job creation to continue to outperform over the coming decade.

There is universal agreement on the need to reform the US education system to encourage more US students to enter STEM occupations. Currently, the number of US students pursuing STEM fields is growing at less than one percent per year, and by 2018 there will be more than 230,000 advanced degree STEM jobs that will not be filled even if every single new American STEM grad finds a job.

As a near term solution to fill the perceived STEM shortage, University Presidents, STEM employers, STEM workers, and others have called on Congress to reform US immigration laws to recruit and retain high-skilled foreign-born STEM workers, and members of Congress have taken up the call for reform. Both Democrats and Republicans from the US Senate and the US House of Representatives have introduced bills to provide green cards to foreign advanced degree graduates in STEM from US universities. Polls have shown broad bipartisan support for these bills across political, ideological, racial, and ethnic lines.

As these bills are considered, it is important to ask and address the following questions: (1) Does a STEM shortage exist?; (2) What is the extent of the STEM shortage, and in what fields is it most prominent?; and (3) Would hiring foreign STEM professionals displace their American counterparts?