There is a global race underway for one of the key ingredients of economic vitality: talent. Countries are competing for the best and brightest scientists, engineers, innovators, and entrepreneurs—the kinds of people who spark the economy and propel it forward by producing new discoveries, commercializing big ideas, and growing successful companies. The United States has long been a magnet for the best talent in the world, particularly in science and engineering disciplines. But now, as American policymakers engage in a necessary debate about low-skill immigration, that issue has been conflated with the separate issue of high-skill STEM immigration, and the unfortunate result has been unduly harsh scrutiny and stricter limits on the latter. Meanwhile, as the United States pulls back on high-skill immigration, other nations and regions, such as Canada, China, and Europe, are rushing to capitalize on the void.
On March 28, 2019, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation held a panel discussion examining the global talent puzzle. William Kerr, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the new book The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society, provided a keynote address. His book explores why talented migration drives the knowledge economy, explains the controversies of the H-1B visa, and discusses how the United States can become more competitive in attracting tomorrow’s talent.
Kerr opened the discussion with a brief overview of his new book. He explained how high-skilled immigration has had great impacts on global economies, and he stressed that domestic invention in the United States heavily relies on foreign talent. In 1975, 1 patent out of every 12 was from a foreign-born inventor; in 2017, 1 patent in 3.5 was from a foreign-born inventor. He also emphasized that fact that, by 2030, only 18% of college graduates will come from North America and Western Europe, whereas 27% will come from China and 23% will come from India.
Neil Ruiz, Associate Director of Global Migration and Democracy at Pew Research Center, then shared Pew’s findings on the public’s opinion of high-skilled immigration based on the 2018 Global Attitudes Survey. The study focused on comparing the public’s perception of high-skilled immigration to the data on the education achievement of immigrants. The findings revealed that, since the adoption of a points-based immigration system, Canada has outpaced the United States and France in its share of immigrants who are college-educated. Ruiz also noted that H-1B visas account for a quarter of temporary employment visas issued in 2016, and one million immigrants receive lawful permanent resident status each year.
Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy, then continued the discussion by detailing the H-1B visa policies concerning international students. Anderson noted that the current administration is not as supportive of highly-skilled immigrants or of immigrants in general as previous administrations, enforcing various policies that hinder this global talent from entering the United States. Therefore, he stressed that H-1B visas are the only practical way for high-skilled immigrants to stay in the United States long-term. Despite the often-challenging process of acquiring an H-1B visa, Anderson stressed the innovative and ultimately economic rewards. Therefore, it is critical that the United States not only continue to attract high-skilled immigrants, but also to maintain this international talent which could be achieved by limiting country caps.
The panelists agreed that the United States’ pullback on high-skilled immigration could potentially hinder the nation from acquiring the global talent necessary to drive innovation and grow the economy. In efforts to win the global talent race, it is crucial that the United States address the controversy around H-1B visas in order to attract this coveted international talent.