THE BLOG

Bring in Foreign Talent to Create US Jobs

05/23/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2013

Canada gets it. They are recruiting the world’s brightest people, who our crazy immigration laws repel. Canada has a billboard in Silicon Valley that states “H-1B Problems? Pivot to Canada.”

We face a critical shortage of high-skilled jobs in this country, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Congress is poised to act.

This week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee reached a bipartisan agreement on amendments to S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. Among other needed reforms, the bill would expand the H-1B visa worker program, allowing the best and the brightest in highly specialized fields to create jobs and innovate in America.

On the House side, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) introduced the Supplying Knowledge-Based Immigrants and Lifting Levels of STEM Visas Act, or the SKILLS Visa Act, which recognizes that immigration policy must be strategic to contribute to our national growth and innovation. The legislation includes many long-overdue policy reforms necessary to expand the U.S. economy, advance innovation and allow for the development of small, entrepreneurial companies in the United States.

For America to remain the world’s leading innovator, we must embrace immigration policy reforms like the SKILLS Visa Act that allow the United States to be a magnet for the best and brightest to work and build their businesses, create new jobs and contribute to the overall success of our economy. There simply aren’t enough U.S. students getting advanced degrees in STEM fields to keep up with the demand for STEM workers. As a result, tech companies have to look abroad for the talent that they need to grow their businesses. Most H-1B visa applications -- 90 percent -- are for high-skilled STEM workers. More, surveys indicate foreign-born STEM workers here on H-1B visas actually help raise the U.S. standard of living by creating highly skilled, high-income positions.

As I’ve noted before, high-skilled immigrants are responsible for creating one-quarter of the jobs in the U.S. Just look at some of our greatest success stories: Sergey Brin, from Russia, founded Google; Andy Grove, a Hungarian, founded Intel; Pierre Omidyar, from France, founded eBay; and the list goes on. But while demand for high-skilled workers is growing, there are not enough visas to meet it. Current law caps H-1B visas at 65,000 per year, a limit set in 1990. This year, it took only five days to reach that cap. In all, 39,000 applications were denied, and the remaining 65,000 were given out through a lottery system.

America is the land of opportunity. This has long been the place where people come for the chance to work hard and achieve success. Yet we are losing our competitive edge in the global marketplace. We were ranked No. 7 in competitiveness and innovation by the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013. The Global Innovation Index 2012 ranked us at No. 10 in innovation. We can address this problem by bringing high-skilled jobs back to our shores through expansion of the H-1B visa program as proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in his amendments to S. 744. If we do not welcome these innovators and entrepreneurs and encourage them to create jobs in America, other nations will take them in and reap the benefits.

Many worry that expanding the visa program will take jobs away from U.S. citizens. This is not the case. Instead, if we don’t reform the program, we’ll be giving jobs away to other countries. The Brookings Institution recently published a paper showing that STEM jobs in the U.S. “exhibit characteristics of under-supply: high wages and low unemployment.” Employers can’t fill specialized positions because there aren’t enough qualified American citizens to do the work. This puts American employers in a tough spot. They can either bring a foreign worker to the U.S. under the H-1B visa program to create jobs here or -- if the worker can’t get a visa -- they can hire foreign workers in other countries and give jobs to those countries. The bottom line is, we want job creators to make the U.S. their first choice, and we need an immigration system that ensures America is the easy choice.

Still, any reforms to the U.S. worker visa program have to complement and expand the permanent U.S. workforce. The “Hatch amendments” to S. 744, which the Judiciary Committee this week agreed to, would require this. They would allow the H-1B visa cap to fluctuate depending on the state of the economy, and require fees for visas to benefit American students in STEM fields, adding to the pool of domestic talent. Employers should be required to post job openings for U.S. citizens first, before they are offered to foreign workers. And employers must make every good faith effort to hire an equally qualified American citizen to a position. The talent we bring to our shores should be able to assist in the creation of new jobs for Americans, and training new American talent.

And of course, immigration reforms should make it easier to retain top foreign talent. We don’t just want the best and the brightest to get their start here, we want them to stay in this country and continue to innovate, teach others and create jobs. Our current system makes it very difficult for top talent to stay in the country once their visas expire. That has to change.

We want an immigration system that opens the door to job creating talent. We want a system that grows the economy and puts more Americans to work, while allowing innovators and entrepreneurs from around the globe to bring their talents to our shores. The improvements embodied by the Hatch amendments will provide a robust temporary visa program that will address the high-skilled worker shortage, creating more U.S. jobs and advancing innovation. We hope the full Senate follows the Senate Judiciary Committee’s lead in recognizing the importance of the legislation for America’s economic future. We should prove we are at least as strategic as the Canadians. Our economy depends on it.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling booksNinja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.