By: Jillian Cota
The United States needs to attract and retain the best minds from around the world if it is to succeed in the twenty-first century global innovation competition.
The U.S. has long been a magnet for the world’s talent and home to some of the world's most prestigious institutions of higher learning, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The U.S.’s highly regarded graduate programs have welcomed talented foreign students looking to participate in cutting edge research. However, this welcome mat is often withdrawn post-graduation, when these highly-trained individuals—who seek to contribute the U.S. economy—must instead pack up and go back to their home countries. This policy is short-sighted.
High-skill workers seeking employment in the United States currently face significant hurdles, including a slow and arduous process for obtaining a U.S. Green Card and a backlog of cases in the immigration court system. In fact, over 1.2 million individuals
who have already been approved for a Green Card are still waiting to receive one, putting their U.S. residency status at risk. Unless resolved promptly, countless talented individuals will be forced to return to their home country, or to a country with a more proactive talent recruitment system and pursue careers there instead.
Forcing the out-migration of talent will allow America’s international competitors to capitalize on our world-class research system and put U.S. firms at a significant competitive disadvantage. Without a focus on retaining global talent, the United States will not be able to hold its edge over emerging global tech competitors.
While the United States currently dominates research in a variety of STEM fields
, a key challenge is to leverage this advantage to bring new innovations to market—and with it the attendant broader benefits of economic growth and high value employment. To do this, the U.S. needs to keep the talent it has trained to start new firms and to manufacture new products and services.
As a STEM-intensive sector, the semiconductor industry is a useful case study. While the United States economy runs on a platform of semiconductor based technologies, the Bureau of Labor Statistics
predicts that the United States will see a 10.4% decline in absolute employment
for the semiconductor industry between 2018 and 2028. U.S. semiconductor firms are among the world’s leaders
in the research and design elements of semiconductors. Not only does the production hold significant economic value, but semiconductors are also at the core of several industries, such as clean energy, health care, and military defense.
Without access to a pool of high-skill labor, semiconductor research and production will continue to migrate overseas. This issue is not exclusive to the semiconductor industry but exists across several high technology fields, including nuclear and electrical engineering. By retaining foreign tech talent as well as encouraging U.S.-born students, the United States can more rapidly grow a twenty-first century workforce.
The Need for a Strategy
Heeding this caution, the Biden administration in January 2022 announced administrative changes to U.S. immigration policy
meant to attract global STEM talent and tackle the growing concern over the “reverse brain drain.” The Biden administration affirmed its commitment to removing barriers to the legal immigration process, allowing high-skill individuals to obtain residency in the United States.
This announcement, while referencing the broader community of international students, was particularly aimed at the retention of students pursuing degrees in STEM-related fields. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) added twenty-two additional fields to the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, extended the allotted time for students completing additional academic training to obtain J-1 visas
, which are for those who want to participate in study or work-related programs, and expanded non-immigrant status to persons with “extraordinary abilities” such as STEM PhD holders.
While the Biden administration's announcements are a positive step forward in the retention of international STEM professionals, there is still much to accomplish. Rather than frame the skills gap as an immigration concern—which is a seemingly intractable political issue--Congress must consider a new way to encourage high-skill individuals to remain in the country and contribute to the U.S. economy.
In short, the United States needs a human resources strategy to compete globally in the twenty-first century. While expanding STEM job-based green cards and investing in Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs through the DHS is a helpful start, for the United States to remain globally competitive, policymakers must develop a long-term human resources strategy that welcomes foreign individuals with STEM backgrounds to remain and contribute to the United States, replacing a self-defeating policy that incentivizes their departure.
Jillian Cota is a research intern with the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
The Perspectives on Innovation Blog is produced by the Renewing American Innovation Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).