Innovation Lightbulb: Foreign-born Share of the U.S. STEM Workforce

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In 2022, the United States Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, which aimed to increase national semiconductor manufacturing capacity and innovation. Amid concerns over the U.S.’s dwindling share of global chip-making, policymakers and industry leaders were confronted with another challenge: a shortage of skilled technical workers, scientists, and engineers. Despite efforts to ramp up U.S. STEM education capacity, including efforts to broaden the workforce pipeline by drawing in demographics historically underrepresented in these fields, the U.S. remains highly reliant on foreign-born individuals for its high-tech workforce needs, particularly in the short term. 

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s 2024 Indicators Report on the state of U.S. science and engineering (S&E), foreign-born workers comprise approximately 19 percent of the overall U.S. STEM workforce in 2021, inclusive of citizens and non-citizens. However, among the U.S.’s most highly educated STEM workforce cohort, foreign-born representation is dramatically higher, with nearly 60 percent of doctorate-level computer and mathematical scientists (58 percent) and doctorate-level engineers employed across all S&E fields (56 percent) in the U.S. are foreign-born. 

The NSF report further states that, upstream from the workforce, international students who hold temporary visa status are more likely to pursue degrees in S&E compared to U.S. citizens and permanent residents. A staggering 83 percent of all doctorate degrees earned by temporary visa holders were in S&E fields, with many recipients reporting a strong desire to remain and work in the U.S. after graduation. The “stay rate” for temporary visa holders with doctorate S&E degrees is approximately 71 percent after five years and 65 percent after ten years, with the highest rates in fields crucial for national security and economic competitiveness like engineering. 

While these figures indicate U.S. strengths in attracting global talent, any U.S. STEM workforce strategy must have a near- and long-term approach. While training and educating STEM talent domestically among elementary school and high school students will address future workforce needs, it is more of a generational strategy—one that does not solve the acute, near-term shortages that high-tech industries and U.S. federal S&E-related agencies struggle with. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, the U.S. economy is projected to have approximately 1.4 million unfilled computer science, engineering, and technician jobs by 2030. Given the national security and economic advantages of U.S. leadership in science and engineering, U.S. policies must ensure that the U.S. remains an attractive destination for foreign STEM talent and that non-citizen foreign-born S&E professionals can remain in the U.S. after graduation. 

To achieve this goal, the U.S. must work to lower administrative barriers and financial burdens for high-tech immigration, which often prevent highly skilled foreign individuals—often educated at U.S. institutions—from exercising their valuable talents here. Increasingly, these talents are gladly welcomed elsewhere, including by foreign competitors and adversaries. A failure to fully capitalize on our advantage in educating and attracting foreign-born science and engineering talent would be a policy “own goal” in an era of increased geopolitical competition for leadership in advanced technologies. 

Data visualization by William Taylor