Since 1986, Dr. Jash Sharma has run CIMA Life Science, an international company that fulfills a personal mission: Inspired by his father, who went blind at age 62, Dr. Sharma is helping tens of thousands of vision-impaired people to see. The company manufactures intraocular lenses, which replace a patient’s natural lens that has been damaged by cataracts. The hospital established by Sharma’s father in India has treated more than 1 million patients in the last 25 years. “All patients with cataract receive lenses whether they can pay or not,” says Sharma, who immigrated to the United States from India in 1970.
Given the company’s mission and that its hub is in Pittsburgh, one of America’s most livable cities, finding qualified employees should be a snap. But Sharma has a problem: There simply aren’t enough Americans with the skills needed to make the lenses. “We have a difficulty retaining skilled staff who are trained in advanced manufacturing,” he says. “We hire them and train them, which sometimes takes six months, and in a year we lose them.”
Sharma is not alone in his struggle to find qualified employees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Employers throughout the United States face a critical shortage of STEM professionals, one that hampers their ability to expand and create jobs at all skill levels. In 2014, for example, there were 12 STEM jobs posted for every unemployed STEM worker, research from New American Economy (NAE) shows.
We hire them and train them, which sometimes takes six months, and in a year we lose them.
Although more than half of CIMA’s 25 employees are immigrants, the majority of the company’s workers with advanced manufacturing skills were born in America. But a high demand for those skills at American firms allows the U.S.-born employees upon which the company depends to quickly leave and take other jobs. Sharma believes his staffing problems would be greatly alleviated if U.S. immigration policy were more hospitable to foreign-born STEM graduates. In the past year alone he interviewed three such graduates and all declined to take a job. “They didn’t know if they’d be able to get an extension of their visa to work here. They didn’t know if they could stay, so they decided not to join the organization,” he says.
It’s a loss not just to Sharma, but to Pennsylvania, as well. Foreign-born STEM graduates actually create jobs for Americans. Research from NAE shows that when a state gains 100 foreign-born STEM workers with graduate-level training from a U.S. school, an average of 262 jobs are created for U.S.-born workers within seven years. Pennsylvania is one of the states that stands to gain the most from retaining more foreign-born STEM professionals. In 2014, the state had 4,025 foreign-born STEM graduates; If half of those graduates remained in the Keystone State they would create 5,273 jobs.
CIMA Life Science currently manufactures 180,000 intraocular lenses per year, all of which are exported for sale in more than 35 countries. Lenses are also donated to hospitals and charitable organizations throughout the world.
Sharma hadn’t intended to become an entrepreneur when he arrived in the United States with eight dollars in his pocket. Then 25, he’d come to complete his medical training. But shortly after Sharma began his practice in 1978, his father in India lost his eyesight to glaucoma and infection. To cope with the loss, Sharma’s father started a charitable trust to prevent other Indians from going blind due to lack of treatment for eye disorders such as glaucoma, cataracts, and congenital eye diseases.
At that time, intraocular lens were available in the United States but not India. So Sharma decided to honor his father by opening a manufacturing unit in India. In 1997, he moved the unit to Pittsburgh for oversight purposes, and the business has remained there ever since.
If he had stayed in India, Sharma says he doesn’t believe that being both a physician and an entrepreneur would have been possible, and he is grateful that the U.S. system has provided him with the opportunity to do such fulfilling work. “After a patient gets their vision back, their smile gives me immense happiness,” he says. “You cannot imagine how it changes their whole life and whole world.”
Sharma wants today’s young people to receive the same chance to contribute. Sensible immigration reform, he says, will help them reach their potential — and bring their talent to light.