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By: Marcus Wohlsen
The debate over foreign skilled workers in the United States divides along painfully predictable fault lines. On one side, tech CEOs complain that the country’s flawed education system can’t produce the talent they need to stay competitive. On the other side, labor and anti-immigration groups charge that companies just want to import cheaper labor from China and India at the expense of qualified U.S. workers.
In a new study, Brookings Institution researchers have drilled down into the numbers and found that the data doesn’t neatly support either side. Despite the interconnectedness of the global economy, the economics of bringing skilled foreign workers to the United States remains very much local.
Companies that want to bring in college-educated foreign workers must apply for what are known as H-1B visas. The Brookings study appears to be one of the first that looks at H-1B applications at not just the national but the metro level.
“People just look at a national snapshot and say we have a shortage or people are taking away jobs from Americans,” says study co-author Neil Ruiz. He says that from such a distance, the real picture gets distorted: “The data is showing it’s not just a national debate. We need to understand at a local level that this is where economic activity happens. The skills have to happen at the local level.”
In one example, the study describes the employment picture in Columbus, Indiana, about 45 miles south of Indianapolis. Columbus ranks second only to Silicon Valley in intensity of demand for skilled foreign workers, measured by the number of H-1B requests per 1,000 jobs in the metro region. Columbus is home to Cummins Inc., a Fortune 500 diesel engine maker, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of the region’s H-1B applications.
In Columbus, the overall unemployment rate stands at 6 percent, well below the national average. The unemployment rate for workers with bachelor’s degrees comes in even lower at 3 percent — a number that suggests diesel engineers with U.S. citizenship don’t have trouble finding work in Columbus.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Silicon Valley, a global hub of job creation, hovers at 8.4 percent, slightly higher than the overall U.S. rate. Employers in the region requested an average of nearly 15,000 H-1B visas annually over the past two years, or more than 17 for every thousand workers — by far the country’s highest rate, according to Brookings.
Whether that means Silicon Valley businesses are hiring software engineers from overseas at the expense of their U.S. counterparts remains an open question, since the Brookings study only looked at worker demand and not supply. Top-tier companies like Facebook and Google, which ranks 19th among U.S. employers requesting H-1Bs, scout furiously for so-called 10x engineers, a category that likely excludes many of the Valley’s unemployed coders. Even so, the city of San Jose’s economic development agency recently reported that some 1,800 unemployed engineers had registered with a city program in search of work.
Either way, Brookings’ findings draw a map of U.S. innovation that extends well beyond the usual enclaves. Some high-demand H-1B cities shown on the map above seem like obvious magnets for talent, and others not so much. Ruiz believes the complexity of the situation on the ground reflects one clear truth: If Congress really wants to aid the U.S. economy, it should set immigration policy based on data, not politics. The starting point, he says, is to set the cap on the number of H-1B visas each year by analyzing and meeting the needs of regional economies that depend on innovative companies to stay vibrant.
“Washington is broken –– they always use ideology and get nowhere,” he says. “Facts at the local level can be used to create real, informed policies removed from politics so we can actually grow as a nation.”