Make America Great Again—Invest in High-Skilled Immigrants

September 21st, 2016  |  Source: PS Magazine

What Donald Trump and the GOP get wrong about STEM guest workers.

Are foreign workers coming to United States to steal the best jobs from hard-working Americans? Absolutely — and new research shows it’s quite good for the country.

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that it’s high-skilled immigrants who are fueling the growth of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector, a crucial engine for U.S. immigration. In their analysis, economists Gordon H. Hanson and Matthew J. Slaughter found that foreign-born workers currently account for a “disproportionate” share of specialists in the STEM fields, despite the relatively limited numbers of employee-sponsored (140,000) and H-1B (85,000) visas available to skilled workers within the current immigration system.

According to data compiled by the NBER (and charted to the left), the number of foreign workers with university degrees in STEM occupations has been on the rise since 1993.

The influx of high-skilled immigrants into STEM fields is largely to thank for America’s modern prowess in the global technology sector, despite the relatively paltry share of STEM jobs in total employment (6 percent in 2012, up from 5 percent during the 2001 dot-com bust).

“Recent work finds evidence consistent with high-skilled immigration having contributing to advances in U.S. innovation,” Hanson and Slaughter observe. “U.S. states and localities that attract more high-skilled foreign labor see faster rates of growth in labor productivity…. Metropolitan areas that historically employed more H-1B workers enjoyed larger bumps in patenting when Congress temporarily expanded the program between 1999 and 2003.”

We can partially attribute the dominance of foreign-born workers in STEM fields to education. American secondary students ranked below other high-income countries in math and science (36th and 28th, respectively, in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment exam), and U.S. institutions of higher education that dominate global rankings in medical science and engineering tend to explicitly attract foreign talent from abroad to bolster their reputations. But Hanson and Slaughter argue that it’s primarily increased specialization among foreign-born workers, the skills and expertise signaled by an advanced degree, that tend to catch the eye of employers. While American workers may not be at a comparative disadvantage in math and science compared to foreign-born ones, universities and immigrations programs like the H-1B visa implicitly screen for the best and brightest the world has to offer.

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