Innovation Depends on Visa Reform

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Foreign-born “computer professionals” represent the largest share of H-1B visa applicants, according to a study released this week from the Brookings Institution. The study explores the demand for the H-1B class of highly skilled professional visas across different U.S. metropolitan areas, assessing which geographical and professional areas rely most heavily on foreign-born talent.

The findings show that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations accounted for more than half of all H-1B requests in 92 of the 106 metropolitan areas studied, pointing to the disparity of United States STEM graduates and advanced STEM occupations needing to be filled. The Obama administration estimated in February 2012 that less than half of U.S. students pursuing a degree in STEM fields ultimately earn a degree in a STEM discipline. 

The H-1B visa system also plays a major role for small companies and startups which rely on these highly skilled workers to develop products and services. “Our study shows that private firms account for the vast majority, 90 percent, of requests,” Neil Ruiz, a co-author of the study, said in an email to Engine. The top 100 H-1B employers make up only 20 percent of these visas requests. “I would not be surprised if some of them [the remaining employers] are smaller companies or startups,” Ruiz said. For more from Ruiz, see his video


The study also noted that specialized skills tend to cluster in certain regions of the world. For example, 56 percent of the world’s engineering degrees are awarded to students studying in Asia, compared to the United States, which graduates just 4 percent of these degrees.

Clustering effects aren’t limited to skill set distribution. Innovation centers in the United States are situated near universities, metropolitan areas endowed with venture capital, and research and development hubs. These areas, from the tech hub of Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle Park in Durham, North Carolina, rely on the H-1B visa program to stock the talent pool for startups in need of highly skilled workers.

The H-1B visa is an essential tool for growing technology centers and the economic benefits they provide. The study’s recommendations include forming a non-governmental, non-political commission to assess the needs of metropolitan areas and assign H-1B caps accordingly.

Legislation proposed this year, including measures such as Startup Act 2.0, seeks to eliminate per-country visa caps, along with other measures designed to allow tech businesses easier access to the foreign-born talent they need in order to grow and thrive in a globally competitive market.

It has become more and more clear that domestic demand for highly skilled labor is outpacing supply. This gap must be addressed by policymakers before the lack of STEM-educated professionals dampens innovation, growth, and entrepreneurship in the U.S. economy. We support measures introduced by lawmakers to end the cap system that arbitrarily prevents talented individuals working for U.S. companies. Policymakers should also consider reforms of the immigration system that would make it easier for entrepreneurs to enter the U.S., start businesses, and create American jobs.

Image from the Brookings Institute.