July 19th, 2012
02:35 PM ET

Is America falling behind in the skilled worker race?

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.

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Topics: Economy • Jobs • United States

soundoff (99 Responses)
  1. EvilWorm

    One of the Indian Mechanical Designers that rotate in for training at our facility it slip a year and a half ago that he makes $1.49 and hour.

    That was not counting the all expence paid hotel, company chauffeur to and from work and meals during the 3 to 6 month stay.

    It's NOT that the 8 million jobs lost in Ameriaca since NAFTA where filled by overpaid and under skilled idiots here.

    Corporate America will trade our competance for $1.49 an hour in a heart beat and let the few Americans they retain check their work and guide their training. Our American staff is half what it used to be and the Indian office has doubled in size.

    July 22, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  2. Social Maverick

    Is America falling behind in the skilled worker race? Simple answer: No.

    Is America pursing a short-sighted policy of short-term corporate profits in an race to the bottom for ever lower wage workers and work environments to the point where nobody they hire can afford to buy the products they make? Absolutely Yes.

    July 23, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  3. Social Maverick

    Go to YouTube and check out the Programmers Guild video to see how firms are instructed to legally, but explicitly exclude qualified, educated and experienced American workers for positions that the firms wish to hire H-1B workers to fill. Also, check out the Programmers Guild Org website for examples of the phony employment ads these firms are required to post in local newspapers.

    July 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • juggernaut

      and you think doing away with the 65000 odd H1B's will make America's woes disappear? here's some food for thought.....http://www.renewoureconomy.org/index.php?q=patent-pending

      July 27, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  4. Social Maverick

    These writers and think tanks are funded by the wealthiest individuals, foundations, corporations and their executives,
    to produce propaganda to affect public opinion and more importantly to generate a mind-set that is used by corporate lobbyists to influence and actually write legislation to effect their only goal of further self-enrichment.

    Ask youself whether you personally contributed to the individual, foundation or other organization that produced the study, report or article. If not, then you can be assured that they are not representing your interests, and are likely working directly in opposition to your interests.

    July 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  5. jon doe

    The H1-B program is a joke. This program is a backdoor for Indians to get into the US. 40% of these visas are given to Indians. Shouldn't this program be designed to incorporate diversity into the workplace, assuming diversity makes our country better??? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:H1b_demographics.jpg). Indians receive more than 3 times as many H1-B visas as the number 2 country. I work in the I.T. field, and many of the Indians that work in this profession tend to hire only other Indians, even though this is not their country. Not only that, but this also keeps wages down for the I.T. workers in general, since H1-B workers tend to get paid less. If this program is supported, it should be done in a FAIR way that encourages diversity and FAIR wages, NOT artificially lower wages given to just one group of foreigners. If companies paid MUCH HIGHER wages for I.T. workers and promoted this throughout the university/college system, they would attract more domestic talent. Importing sub par talent is not the solution.

    July 23, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Reply
    • juggernaut

      According to US law H1B's cannot be paid lower than the prevailing wage for the job... so I have no idea what you are talking about.

      July 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Reply
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