Blog Post

It’s time to stem the loss of STEM graduates

The US has the best research universities in the world, which is why we attract the best students from around the world. Forcing them to leave, rather than allowing them to stay and add their skills and knowledge to our economy, is one of the most short-sighted policies we have.” —John Hennessy, President, Stanford University

America’s top universities are busy graduating a new crop of highly-skilled scientists, engineers and mathematicians — more than half of them foreign-born — but many of them will not remain in the US after graduation. The fact is, many of our foreign-born students will accept jobs elsewhere because current immigration policy makes it difficult for them to stay and work.

Why would we let some of the best and brightest graduates of our top universities leave? The rational, as it is applied across all spectrums of immigration policy by a myriad of political pundits, appears simple: “Immigrants take jobs from Americans.” It’s a supply and demand argument that claims jobs filled by these highly skilled graduates could have been filled by unemployed Americans.

However, the reality contradicts these claims. Foreign-born STEM (sciencetechnologyengineering and mathematics) graduates are actually proven job creators. Arguably, they are America’s single strongest economic driver in the modern era. A report by the Technology CEO Council stated that entrepreneurial “start-ups are disproportionately founded and supported” by foreign-born individuals. According to a report by The New American Economy, 40 percent of the largest US companies were founded by immigrants or first-generation immigrants, including many of the hottest tech startups. A recent example, Whatsapp, which sold to Facebook for $19 billion, was founded by a Ukrainian immigrant. My own company, Mediaocean, was founded by an immigrant more than 40 years ago.

Furthermore, hiring these foreign STEM graduates is anything but cheap. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 2.5 computer science openings for every graduate. In fact, the top five largest technology companies in the US have over 10,000 combined unfilled computer science openings. These statistics inspired CEOs from many of our largest tech companies and trade associations to write an open letter to President Obama and Congress asking for a reformed immigration policy. Companies need to subsidize hired workers through a costly and complex immigration process stuck in a bygone era of bureaucratic paperwork with little automation.

As global competition for STEM talent increases, other countries are attempting to capitalize on our dysfunction. One need look no further than the billboards Canada has placed along our technology corridors for evidence of this. Saudi Arabia and other countries are building national laboratory systems similar to our own with an emphasis on recruiting US-trained scientists.

So, how do we solve this problem? It begins with the H1-B visa. H1-B is the designation for short–term, skilled workers visa in the US. Applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree under a broad list of majors, including some liberal arts, business and STEM majors. The amount of H1-B visas is capped at 65,000 per year for bachelor-degreed applicants with another 20,000 reserved for master’s degrees. This cap was put in place 10 years ago and has not grown to meet the demand, which is estimated at anywhere from two to three times this amount, according to the report by The New American Economy. The US should double the amounts of H1-B visas given every year while increasing the fees substantially, from the $325 an applicant pays today to $1,500 or more. The difference in fees should be used to help fund scholarships for US-born students to pursue STEM degrees.

Even once an employee gets an H1-B visa, there can still be issues. If an H1-B visa holder loses their job today, they need to leave the country if they are unable to immediately find a new sponsor. There is no grace period whatsoever. It again appears short-sighted to lose a highly-skilled worker due to temporary employment status. Work permits should be granted to any foreign students that graduate with a degree from an accredited four-year US university in a STEM field. After working for four years in a STEM field, they should be allowed to self-petition for permanent residency (as opposed to employer-sponsored). This way we keep the brightest people here, but they are free to change jobs or move to new locations as they desire.

Finally, we should create a special visa designation for foreign technology entrepreneurs who wish to relocate their business to the US. This designation should be limited in scope and require the business to have enough capital resources to be a net job creator. As President Obama said last year, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.” Now is the time to get the politicians to act on this common sense issue.

John Bauschard is President, Platforms at Mediaocean, where he oversees development and adoption of Mediaocean’s next-generation systems for the global marketing industry.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Filipe Frazao.

9 Responses to “It’s time to stem the loss of STEM graduates”

  1. Fran_K

    The US needs comprehensive immigration reform. The demographics show that in the long term this will become a critical problem. I personally think that the US should dramatically increase the number of immigrants. I also think that instead of the H1-B system we should have a system that makes it easy for people with desirable skills to become citizens. I’d much rather have that than the current visa system, which is open to abuse and manipulation. If the US wants tech workers here, why not make it easy for them to be naturalized instead of making it easy for select companies to profit from their status as dependent workers?

    Friends of mine who became citizens had to go through a complicated and expensive process that took nearly a decade to complete. It seems this could be streamlined and made less expensive and involve fewer legal fees.

  2. Fran_K

    I post a link to studies and see a bunch of anecdotal replies, none of them qualified to the real world of real data. You can say things like “H1-Bs are not cheap” “foreign grads work harder” “I can’t find them” and so on, but none of it addresses the real issues. Read the articles I linked to. This is all just so much posturing that profits a certain group of people who own tech companies.

    Finally, do you think this congress is going to change the H1-B limits in the current political climate? The House is controlled by anti-immigration fanatics.

  3. Bhadra

    I work for a top tech firm. We just don’t find any US engineers applying for jobs. There aren’t enough and the few that are there tend to join google and Facebook. Our H1Bs are paid well above the average. Find us some local engineers we would be happy to hire then. The same applies to women in computer science. The long term solution is to make engineering “sexy” in high school. If eveyone wants to be a lawyer consultant or rock star where do you expect to find engineers.

    The immigration system is ridiculous. By making H1b’s captives until they get green cards we stifle innovation. Family unification laws are even worse. As a tourist you can bring your spouse here but as a legal permanent resident it takes years. As a US citizen it takes a year or more to petition to bring your foreign wife here. Isn’t this discrimination ? No wonder top engineers are going back to China, India and other countries which have far more supportive immigration policies .

    • A Ch0w, sneeze

      Amen to this.

      Immigrants have to endure a lot of stuff, loneliness being one of them. The visas basically make you a slave to your sponsor, the only saving grace being that so far, most companies willing to sponsor your visa generally understand that they will get the best out of you if you are happy.

      I don’t know where people get the notion that H1Bs are cheap… There is a lot of competition for them, and I don’t think I’m a genius by any standard, but I certainly don’t feel cheap (my employer certainly doesn’t treat me that way).

      And also very true that most of the people applying for the job openings at my firm are foreign born… Sometimes I wish I could go stand at the city centre and beg locals to come apply so I stop feeling “guilty” (yeah I don’t know why, but sometimes I do wonder whether I am actually keeping someone else unemployed)

  4. Fran_K

    And I forgot to mention the biggest problem with this notion that jobs are unfilled because of a lack of candidates, that a job listing is nothing more than a proposal from a company to a pool of candidates. I just did a search of my local tech jobs and found thousands of openings. However, once you dig into the details you find posting that offer half the going rate for a job requiring deep experience. Nobody is going to take that job at that rate, so should it be counted? If the company were really desperate they would offer something competitive in order to draw skilled people.

    The fact of the matter is that the cost of advertising for a particular set of skills in a specific salary range is a trivial cost and is not an accurate measure of unfilled openings. There may be a correlation to be shown, but I know of plenty of companies that routinely post ads for nonexistent job openings in hopes of stumbling upon the A-plus candidate for whom you’d make an opening as they are such valuable employees. And some companies just advertise to keep their name in the pool. There could be many reasons for a job posting but not all of them are because a specific opening is available.

  5. Fran_K

    We are not amazed that people who benefit from the lower wages paid to H1-B visa holders will advocate for policies that improve their bottom line. There is plenty of evidence that this STEM job assertion is false, see for example:

    but, it is also troubling that the needs of the few, those who benefit from raising the H1-B caps, are silently removed from the needs of the many, namely those who benefit from a full immigration reform effort.

    Unfortunately for the captains of tech industry, who have lately begun serious lobbying efforts of convincing hard right congressmen to assist in controlling the wages of tech workers, the political gridlock means that nobody is getting any immigration reform this year. And likely not until a sea change in the makeup of congress occurs.

  6. America needs to better prepare their students in grades K-12. American students cannot compete with foreign students in the STEMs in college. That’s why their enrollment in STEMs is so low

    • Jim Bob

      Actually that has nothing to do with it. While many top foreign students are better prepared, it’s high Q function and most of the rest are simply a product of family wealth and rampant academic cheating.

      The reason colleges are oversubscribed with foreign students is simply that they can charge more money for them and they pay without complaining. US students can’t get in because they have to consider massive loans which can’t be paid back with the expected earnings.