By Neil Ruiz and Shyamali Choudhury, Special to CNN
Neil G. Ruiz is a senior policy analyst and Shyamali Choudhury is a researcher at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. The views expressed are solely those of the authors.
The search for skills has been a daunting task for U.S. companies trying to find the right person to fill well paying and highly skilled jobs. A high-skilled workforce is an essential input to economic growth in the fast-growing knowledge economy, and specialized skills – often requiring education or experience in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – are critical to supporting innovation in fields as diverse as computers, medicine, and communication.
Instead of relying on classified sections of newspapers or local networks to find the perfect match, companies have to search far and wide for skills in high demand. Yet despite high unemployment rates, many employers report they’re struggling in the job matching process, frequently complaining that there’s a mismatch between the available domestic workforce and the skills they are demanding.
As a result, companies are having to turn to an international pool of high-skilled workers to find the specialized skills they need because the geographical distribution of skills is so uneven throughout the world. More than half (56 percent) of the world’s engineering bachelor’s degrees are earned in Asia, with another 17 percent in Europe, and just 4 percent in the United States according to the National Science Foundation. Even smaller Asian nations outpace the United States with the combined natural sciences and engineering degrees earned in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan exceeding the United States, despite their collective size being much smaller.
The demand for these highly technical skills is high in the United States, and companies must be willing to consider a range of options for recruiting these skills from abroad. Immigration policy can be critical to the flow of skills entering the United States.
The H-1B visa is the largest dedicated temporary worker visa program for high-skilled workers, and currently allows some 85,000 foreign workers to enter the country annually to support the private sector. Our new research found that the demand for H-1B workers spans industries, metropolitan areas, and a wide range of occupations, and over two-thirds of all requests for H-1Bs are for STEM jobs – the positions that are hardest to fill by employers.
Many globally oriented companies find they need to import skills. Indeed, of the 100 employers with the highest demand for H-1B workers, one-third are internationally headquartered firms. This global approach to filling skills needs has become part of many companies’ recruiting strategy. Access to the global pool of skills should therefore be viewed as a boon to local areas since it gives them the fuel to compete in ways that would be impossible otherwise.
The reality is that these visas are also a critical avenue for hiring foreign students trained at American universities. Without H-1B visas, many of these students must leave the country – taking their diploma, skills, and bright futures with them. In one growing trend, for example, many Indian students educated in the United States are returning to India to start companies rather than face the uncertainty of receiving a visa to stay in the United States or having to wait in the long line for a green card.
To respond to the skills needs of global companies, policies must be flexible and responsive – a tall order for U.S. immigration policy. Yet, the pressure is imminent: countries such as Canada and Australia have already capitalized on America’s inability to respond to these needs by liberalizing their immigration policies towards highly skilled workers.
Global businesses support local economies with offices located around the world. The United States’ competitiveness will falter if employers cannot access the highly skilled workers that they need.