America Should Open Its Doors Wide to Foreign Talent

Discussion about challenges in America’s immigration policies tends to focus on the millions of illegal immigrants. But the more pressing immigration problem facing the US today, writes Intel chairman Craig Barrett, is the dearth of high-skilled immigrants required to keep the US economy competitive. Due to tighter visa policies and a growth in opportunities elsewhere in the world, foreign students majoring in science and engineering at US universities are no longer staying to work after graduation in the large numbers that they once did. With the poor quality of science and math education at the primary and secondary levels in the US, the country cannot afford to lose any highly-skilled immigrants, particularly in key, technology-related disciplines. Along with across-the-board improvements in education, the US needs to find a way to attract enough new workers so that companies like Intel do not have to set up shop elsewhere. – YaleGlobal

America Should Open Its Doors Wide to Foreign Talent

Craig Barrett
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

America is experiencing a profound immigration crisis but it is not about the 11m illegal immigrants currently exciting the press and politicians in Washington. The real crisis is that the US is closing its doors to immigrants with degrees in science, maths and engineering – the “best and brightest” from around the world who flock to the country for its educational and employment opportunities. These foreign-born knowledge workers are critically important to maintaining America’s technological competitiveness.

This is not a new issue; the US has been partially dependent on foreign scientists and engineers to establish and maintain its technological leadership for several decades. After the second world war, an influx of German engineers bolstered our efforts in aviation and space research. During the 1960s and 1970s, a brain drain from western Europe supplemented our own production of talent. In the 1980s and 1990s, our ranks of scientists and engineers were swelled by Asian immigrants who came to study in our universities, then stayed to pursue professional careers.

The US simply does not produce enough home-grown graduates in engineering and the hard sciences to meet our needs. Even during the high-tech revolution of the past two decades, when demand for employees with technical degrees was exploding, the number of students majoring in engineering in the US declined. Currently more than half the graduate students in engineering in the US are foreign born – until now, many of them have stayed on to seek employment. But this trend is changing rapidly.

Because of security concerns and improved education in their own counties, it is increasingly difficult to get foreign students into our universities. Those who do complete their studies in the US are returning home in ever greater numbers because of visa issues or enhanced professional opportunities there. So while Congress debates how to stem the flood of illegal immigrants across our southern border, it is actually our policies on highly skilled immigration that may most negatively affect the American economy.

The US does have a specified process for granting admission or permanent residency to foreign engineers and scientists. The H1-B visa programme sets a cap – currently at 65,000 – on the number of foreigners allowed to enter and work each year. But the programme is oversubscribed because the cap is insufficient to meet the demands of the knowledge-based US economy.

The system does not grant automatic entry to all foreign students who study engineering and science at US universities. I have often said, only half in jest, that we should staple a green card to the diploma of every foreign student who graduates from an advanced technical degree programme here.

At a time when we need more science and technology professionals, it makes no sense to invite foreign students to study at our universities, educate them partially at taxpayer expense and then tell them to go home and take the jobs those talents will create home with them.

The current situation can only be described as a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. We need experienced and talented workers if our economy is to thrive. We have an immigration problem that remains intractable and, in an attempt to appear tough on illegal immigration, we over-control the employment-based legal immigration system. As a consequence, we keep many of the potentially most productive immigrants out of the country. If we had purposefully set out to design a system that would hobble our ability to be competitive, we could hardly do better than what we have today. Certainly in the post 9/11 world, security must always be a foremost concern. But that concern should not prevent us from having access to the highly skilled workers we need.

Meanwhile, when it comes to training a skilled, home-grown workforce, the US is rapidly being left in the dust.

A full half of China’s college graduates earn degrees in engineering, compared with only 5 per cent in the US. Even South Korea, with one-sixth the population of the US, graduates about the same number of engineers as American universities do. Part of this is due to the poor quality of our primary and secondary education, where US students typically fare poorly compared with their international counterparts in maths and science.

In a global, knowledge-based economy, businesses will naturally gravitate to locations with a ready supply of knowledge-based workers. Intel is a US-based company and we are proud of the fact that we have hired almost 10,000 new US employees in the past four years. But the hard economic fact is that if we cannot find or attract the workers we need here, the company – like every other business – will go where the talent is located.

We in the US have only two real choices: we can stand on the sidelines while countries such as India, China, and others dominate the game – and accept the consequent decline in our standard of living. Or we can decide to compete.

Deciding to compete means reforming the appalling state of primary and secondary education, where low expectations have become institutionalised, and urgently expanding science education in colleges and universities – much as we did in the 1950s after the Soviet launch of Sputnik gave our nation a needed wake-up call.

As a member of the National Academies Committee assigned by Congress to investigate this issue and propose solutions, I and the other members recommended that the government create 25,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate scholarships, each of $20,000 (£11,300), in technical fields, especially those determined to be in areas of urgent “national need”. Other recommendations included a tax credit for employers who make continuing education available for scientists and engineers, so that our workforce can keep pace with the rapid advance of scientific discovery, and a sustained national commitment to basic research.

But we all realised that even an effective national effort in this area would not produce results quickly enough. That is why deciding to compete also means opening doors wider to foreigners with the kind of technical knowledge our businesses need. At a minimum the US should vastly increase the number of permanent visas for highly educated foreigners, streamline the process for those already working here and allow foreign students in the hard sciences and engineering to move directly to permanent resident status. Any country that wants to remain competitive has to start competing for the best minds in the world. Without that we may be unable to maintain economic leadership in the 21st century.

The writer is chairman of Intel.

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2006.

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