A fresh class full of bright young engineers, agronomists, plant scientists and other budding technologists just graduated from Iowa State University of Science and Technology. These are the young men and women who will fuel our innovation economy and keep farms and other businesses booming in central Iowa, and there’s plenty of demand for their skills.
Many of these newly minted grads accepted job offers six months ago and will soon be heading off to start promising careers for grateful employers who have long struggled to recruit well-trained technical workers.
A startling number of ISU’s graduates, however, won’t be joining the American workforce. It’s not because they can’t find jobs. It’s because they were born in another country. Under our current immigration system, it’s incredibly hard for American businesses to hire and retain skilled foreign graduates. That’s a shocking waste of talent, and it’s a big part of why I’m so delighted to see Sen. Joni Ernst proposing new legislation to streamline America’s skilled-worker visa system and make it easier for U.S. businesses to hire the workers they so desperately need.
The bipartisan Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act is heading for a Senate vote as soon as this week. It would remove the per-country cap for employment-based green card applications, making it easier for talent across the globe to bring their skills here. At present, only 7 percent of each year’s green cards can go to citizens of any single country, meaning that applicants from many countries face a decade-long wait for green cards. For applicants with an advanced degree from India, where demand is especially high, the expected wait for legal residency is a shocking 150 years.
Those delays are leading many skilled workers – even those already working in the United States on H-1B skilled-worker visas – to look elsewhere. The H-1B system is more congested and less stable than it used to be: Visa applications are being rejected at the highest rate in a decade, with U.S. companies this year filing more than 201,000 applications for just 85,000 available H-1B visas. H-1B status also makes it hard for workers to change jobs and use their skills where they’re most needed. Without a clear and timely path to a green card, many talented workers are simply giving up, and looking to build futures in places like Canada, instead of putting down roots here in Iowa.
Unclogging the employment-based green card system might not sound like a major economic priority for Iowans, but in communities like Ames and many others across our state, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Ames boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country at just 1.3 percent in April, according to the St. Louis Fed. While low unemployment might sound like a good thing, the shortage of skilled labor is making it harder for local businesses to expand and grow.
Time and again at the Ames Chamber of Commerce, we hear from local business leaders who are struggling to hire skilled workers. And sooner or later, businesses that can’t find the people they need will look elsewhere — either by outsourcing and shipping jobs overseas or by building new facilities in other parts of the United States. Scrapping the country caps will help to ensure that the businesses now thriving in central Iowa are able to continue growing without relocating.
By making it easier for American businesses to hire and retain the best possible workers, regardless of the country they’re from, this legislation would fuel a new wave of economic growth that will benefit all Americans. According to New American Economy, attracting 100,000 additional immigrants with advanced degrees would create an additional 44,000 jobs for American-born workers. If those new immigrants held advanced degrees in science and technology fields like those taught at ISU, we could expect them to create 262,000 jobs for Americans.
That’s something worth pursuing — but for too long, our leaders have sought to make it harder for companies to hire skilled workers. The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act would be a step in the right direction and would help to provide employers with the steady, controlled access to skilled immigrant workers that’s needed to keep our local economy firing on all cylinders.
Sen. Ernst’s new law would promote smart, business-friendly policies and allow local companies to hire a small number of highly skilled technical graduates, leading to greater prosperity and more jobs for all of us. That’s why business leaders in Ames, and across our great nation, are cheering her leadership, and that of all other politicians who’ve decided to put the American economy ahead of partisan politics.
Dan Culhane is president and CEO of the Ames Chamber of Commerce.