In a country that prizes speed, efficiency and quick responses, the need for far-reaching solutions to long-term problems sometimes seems to exceed our grasp. It’s fine when policymakers turn their attention to immediate concerns, crafting an economic stimulus plan to encourage consumer spending and business investment. But what of the economy five years from now, 10 years, or 20?
As president of the National Association of Manufacturers, I hear from many employers and executives for whom tax relief is always welcome, even critical for success, but who also worry about basic needs for their business.
I’m talking about skilled employees, the trained and trainable workers who can operate modern machinery, analyze complex problems, perform difficult tasks and adapt to the demands of the always changing marketplace. I mean engineers, scientists, researchers and thinkers – the inventive and the inventors. But I also mean those with the modern manufacturing know-how so lacking these days: technicians, welders and machinists, among other professions. Without these skilled employees, we lose the foundation of our competitiveness in an increasingly challenging global race.
So in addition to attending to immediate economic demands, we must respond with ideas, initiatives and programs that put our nation on a strong track for years to come, means by which our country can foster a skilled and qualified workforce.
Access to the best and brightest workers is a key component to business growth. Tens of thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs are available, jobs that offer wages and benefits well above the national average, but the lack of access to skilled workers puts a constant strain on businesses trying to meet their customers’ demands.
Many factors contribute to America’s workforce problems, including a haphazard and inconsistent immigration policy. Yet, much of the talent in question is available right at our own universities, students who flock to America’s campuses from all around the world.
But sadly, restrictive immigration policies here in the United States are making it that much harder for businesses to recruit and retain these talented, future professionals. In many critical STEM disciplines, more than half of the master’s and doctoral degrees at U.S. universities are awarded to foreign nationals. It makes no sense to train foreign engineers and scientists here, and then send them home to compete against U.S. companies.
There’s widespread agreement that America’s immigration system is broken. But with all the focus on important issues of border security, illegal immigrants and unskilled labor – all serious matters, indeed – too little attention is paid to other elements of how we handle talented, resourceful individuals who want to lead good lives in the United States.
For H-1B visas – temporary visas for immigrants with in-demand skills – Congress has allotted 85,000 visas each year, with about 20,000 of that lot reserved for foreigners who have a graduate degree from the U.S. That quota for 2008 was reached on the very first day applications were accepted. That means that any students graduating in 2008 were automatically out of the running to stay in the U.S, a troubling thought for businesses hoping to attract the next generation of workers. The situation for the green card system is just as bleak, especially in light of the fact that these talented people want to stay to live and work here permanently. Green card backlogs are forcing thousands of foreign-born professionals into legal and professional limbo – sometimes for as long as 10 years. For those that qualify, they often resort to applying for H-1B visas in the interim, depleting an already short supply of temporary visas for highly qualified workers.
These skilled professionals prove to be a boon for the corporations and nations who can recruit them. A study by University of Colorado economist Keith Maskus found that for every 100 international students at American universities who receive Ph.D.s in engineering or science, the nation gains 62 future patent applications. While not every patent represents a revolutionary idea or a medical breakthrough, it only takes one good idea to spawn a new industry or launch a new product. Without reforms, these talented individuals will either return to their homelands or migrate to other countries that make an effort to attract them, leaving the United States behind.
America has long been a nation that rewards innovation and initiative with an environment that welcomes and fosters new ideas. Our free-market economy has thrived from having the best and brightest minds – whether home-grown or foreign nationals – who seek out the careers, personal opportunities and freedoms available here in America. Along the way, the United States has become one of the greatest nations in terms of prosperity and economic growth.
Are we surrendering this competitive high ground?
China is rapidly developing its internal education infrastructure and enacting reforms to encourage Chinese scientists and engineers to stay home. India is also evolving internally to retain the country’s domestic talent. In addition, another major contender has emerged in the global fight for talent: the European Union.
The EU, facing a shortage of 20 million skilled workers over the next 20 years, has stepped up to the international race for talent by streamlining its immigration process. Under their proposal, foreign workers would fill out a single application for any of the EU’s 27 member nations. Workers will get their “blue card” in one to three months.
Their proposal would offer faster approval and employment guarantees.
European leaders are banking that their immigration reforms will secure their workforce for years to come, lending renewed vitality to their economies. This aggressive workforce initiative should come as a warning sign to the United States, a warning that our history of welcoming innovation and the bright-minded has succeeded. Now others are not satisfied with emulation – they seek to exceed us.
Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have all enacted policy reforms to their immigration system in the past year that reflects their educational or economic needs. Meanwhile, what did the U.S. do? Nothing. We continue to place arbitrary caps on the number of high-skill visas available and refuse to reform the employment-based green card process to reflect the needs of our employers or advanced manufacturing economy.
While we’ve created a bottleneck, the EU has gladly opened its doors to these skilled professionals. And, where the talent is, job growth will follow.
Clearly, the U.S. cannot continue to accept the status quo in immigration, nor can we add more barriers, controls and restrictions and call it reform. An immigration system that works and reflects the needs of America’s manufacturing economy is vital to our prosperity.
Lawmakers have responded to the shortterm demands of a stumbling economy, offering incentives to help get the nation moving again. But we also need long-term reforms for sustainable economic growth. What happens if we continue to be tripped up by shortages of skilled employees, the thinkers and innovators, the technically skilled and the willing to work? What kind of future prosperity will today’s children have if we limit access to the drivers of economic innovation?
Let’s think about the future, and let’s stay on our feet. Much-needed reforms must be enacted this year to maintain a competitive edge.
John Engler is president of the National Association of Manufacturers, whose mission is to enhance the competitiveness of manufacturers by shaping a legislative and regulatory environment conducive to U.S. economic growth and to increase understanding among policymakers, the media and the general public about the vital role of manufacturing to America’s economic future and living standards. Visit: www.nam.org.