Meanwhile, high-skilled U.S. jobs that foreign-born workers could fill persistently go vacant. According to one economic index, the fields that will be most impacted by ongoing shortages are health, skilled trade labor, and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Just the shortages in STEM alone should keep tech CEOs up at night. Their companies experience firsthand the challenges in finding qualified workers in this field.
For example, take information security analysts: the sensitive nature of their work prevents these jobs from being outsourced to other countries. And forecasts project mathematical and statistical occupations, such as data scientists, to experience faster demand growth over the near term.
There is sensitivity, of course, around whether immigrants take jobs away from American citizens. Research indicates that immigrants can help create more net jobs by filling positions that remain unfilled. A study from the Niskanen Center, for example, indicates that nearly two jobs overall are created in industries associated with computers and engineering with the entrance of every one immigrant with a high-skilled work visa in those industries.
Tech leaders should take advantage of their time at the White House to suggest a few sensible high-skilled immigration policy solutions to the administration. First, annual per-country caps on permanent, employment-based visas should be removed. Employment-based visas should be based on skills, not nationality.
These visas are currently rationed to a fixed number per country of origin, regardless of the number and skill set/occupational mix of that country's applicants. This means we are limiting our ability to bring in STEM (and other) talent we need, simply because it is concentrated in certain parts of the world, such as India. This doesn't make economic – or common – sense.
Second, educational attainment should no longer be the dominant criterion to determine employment-based visas. Though important, educational attainment represents just one aspect of the equation for employment qualification. As the twin forces of global competition and technological progress only intensify, actual skill sets matter more than degrees.
Finally, state and locally administered employment-based visas should be created under any immigration reform proposal. Governors and mayors have a considerably more relevant perspective on the needs of their labor markets than the federal government, yet they have no input or control under current immigration law.
Empowering states and localities to influence immigration policy has worked well in Canada; it is a decentralized approach with aspects that merit consideration by the U.S.
All eyes will be on the interpersonal dynamics of "tech week." Participating tech leaders would be wise to refrain from indulging the media with stories of conflict and instead fill the days and available airwaves with substantive discussions around issues impacting our economy. Immigration is not an easy topic, but if the right reforms come into place, it will generate immense prosperity and innovation for the national good.
Commentary by Steve Odland, CEO of the Committee for Economic Development (CED) and former CEO of Office Depot and AutoZone. Read CED's new immigration report here.
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