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The Other Immigration Problem

FORGET OUTSOURCING. The country’s real immigration challenge is talent insourcing. While the debate over illegal immigration careens off the tracks, …

FORGET OUTSOURCING. The country’s real immigration challenge is talent insourcing. While the debate over illegal immigration careens off the tracks, a far more critical discussion over reform is barely creeping forward. The emotional subject of what to do with the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented workers has clouded judgment about a fundamental problem that will impact U.S. competitiveness for years to come: How do we develop and attract the best minds to stimulate innovation and create more business opportunity? Immigration of skilled scientists has long played a crucial role in giving the U.S. a technological edge. (Imagine where we would be if Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller had trouble getting a visa to work in the U.S.?)

But this edge is in danger of being dulled by inadequate visa policies that limit the ability of employers to hire people with skills and specialized talent not otherwise available. A National Science Foundation report stated that the number of foreign-born doctorate degree holders reached 25,000 in 2004 and continues to grow, while the number of U.S. born doctorates peaked at 18,000 in 1999. The problem is that the quota for H-1B visas, which allows employers to bring such workers from overseas for up to six years and resolve chronic skills shortages, has been woefully inadequate for years. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reports that this is the second year in a row that the 65,000 H-1B visa cap has been prematurely reached, forcing companies with critical skills shortages to wait another year before they can solve the problem by hiring international workers.

While Congress debates a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would raise the H-1B cap to a pre-1999 level of 115,000 visas, the larger issue of America‘s future competitiveness is somehow absent from discussion. With 5 percent unemployment, virtually everyone with an employable skill in this country can have a job. But because not enough qualified Americans are available for many scientific and technical positions, employers are forced to go offshore for much of their development work. Intel has already placed employees away from its California base in countries such as Canada, Ireland and Israel. Bill Gates said that solving this skill shortage is a top priority for Microsoft, which has people waiting at the border to come to work were it not for visa restrictions. The problem is that talent, like money, goes where it is best treated. Australia, Great Britain and South Africa, among other economies, are also hiring. If the U.S. doesn’t get the best and the brightest, others will.

America needs all the brainpower it can get. Today’s H-1B engineer is tomorrow’s entrepreneur creating jobs and opportunity. We should replace the current quota system with a market-based approach.

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