Ryan Hou’s father served as a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, fighting the Chinese communists and idolizing America. His son, Ryan, grew up in Taiwan dreaming of traveling to the United States. So, after completing his military service, Ryan Hou applied to graduate school in America and earned a master’s degree in public administration from the University at Albany, SUNY. Today he runs LHP Engineering Solutions, a staffing agency with revenues of $40 million and some 400 employees, in Columbus, Indiana, that provides flexible engineering talent for some of the region’s largest companies.
Many of Hou’s workers are foreign-born graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Many are able to get a visa to stay in the United States longer than other international students, who must leave within 12 months of graduating, because STEM professionals are considered so valuable to the economy. The United States is projected to face a shortage of one million STEM workers by 2022, and employers struggle to fill many positions.
Even so, says Hou, it’s still hard to find enough skilled STEM graduates, and even harder to transition them to the H-1B visa for high-skilled workers. The U.S. government issues only 85,000 H-1B visas per year, and with more than twice that many applicants in recent years, it uses a lottery to award the slots. “I hire a lot of qualified, talented engineers,” Hou says. “They have a job, and U.S. companies need them — but if they don’t get drawn, they have to go home.”
If they can find a job, give them an H-1B visa — and if they can keep the job for five years, give them a green card.
Though some fear that H-1B visas take jobs from U.S.-born workers, the opposite appears to be true. By helping companies to innovate and grow, these highly skilled STEM workers actually help to create jobs for American workers. An analysis of the economic impact reveals that by 2020, 700,000 American jobs will be created by the high-skilled foreign workers awarded visas between 2010 and 2013. In fact, the existing lottery caps disproportionately hurt U.S.-born STEM workers. One study of the impact of H-1B visa denials in 2007 and 2008 revealed that the caps slowed job and wage growth in more than 200 metropolitan areas across the United States.
Hou’s own immigration story was straightforward: His wife, a computer scientist, easily found work after graduating from university, and Hou received a visa through her before receiving his own H-1B. After finding work in the United States, he was able to receive permanent residency status. The process was easier then, in the 1980s, then it is now, he says. “It took me six months to get a green card. Today, if you’ve come from China, it’ll take you seven years. From India, it takes 10 years.”
The long wait, and the uncertainty, can deter talented international graduates from trying to stay in America, and make it difficult for companies to retain the talent they need. For companies like LHP, finding enough engineers remains a problem, and it is constraining growth. “We’ll hire as many graduates as possible and still have 100 openings that need to be filled,” Hou says. “We’re trying to compete globally, and these engineers are helping us do it, but the U.S. government is putting all these restrictions in our way.”
By making it hard for STEM graduates to get long-term employment visas, Hou says, the government is helping foreign companies to snap up U.S.-trained talent. Foreign nationals make up about 45 percent of Indiana’s STEM doctoral graduates, yet fewer than 11 percent of the state’s STEM workers are immigrants. “We’ve got these smart kids coming to the United States and getting a PhD, but then we’re driving them away,” Hou says. “I have people who didn’t get visas and now work for Indian engineering companies.”
Hou does not want Indiana to miss out. So he does what he can to convince foreign graduates to stay. Hou, who also serves as the deputy mayor of Columbus, works to make the city more welcoming to foreign workers and investors. He promotes better relations with China, founding exchange programs and the Columbus Chinese School, which now has 90 students. He has also helped attract two dozen Japanese companies to the city — a move that led to the creation of an estimated 10,000 new jobs.
Hou would like to see immigration reform that streamlines the visa system. “We need to find innovative ways to attract the best engineering talent into the United States,” he says, adding that international STEM graduates should automatically qualify for high-skilled work visas, never mind a quota. “If they can find a job, give them an H-1B visa — and if they can keep the job for five years, give them a green card,” he says. “It would attract so many smart young engineers to the United States. It would solve a lot of problems.”