As CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, an economic development organization, Jay Byers is trying to make the region a premier destination for immigrant workers, particularly in job-growth industries like bioscience and advanced manufacturing. “Recruiting international talent, especially in high-skilled industries, is absolutely critical to fueling future economic growth,” says Byers, an Iowa native who works with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help champion the need for immigration reform. “One of the top issues we work on is talent, which includes skilling up our existing talent pool and recruiting more talent to our region.”
Immigrants are not only vital to offsetting rural population declines in Iowa, but they are particularly vital given that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields are projected to play a key role in future economic growth. In Iowa, 10.1 percent of all STEM workers were foreign-born in 2014, although the foreign-born comprise just 5 percent of the state’s population overall.
At present, U.S.-born workers are not filling the nation’s incredible demand for STEM workers. While every state was short STEM workers in 2015, the shortage was particularly acute in Iowa, where employers listed 63.6 positions for every unemployed STEM worker. Foreign-born students can help fill this gap. STEM students make up roughly one out of every five students earning a STEM Master’s degree at Iowa’s universities and 41.5 percent of students earning a PhD in STEM, meaning that immigrants are crucial to Iowa’s future workforce.
The more we understand the cultures and economies of other key markets, the more effective our international business strategies will be.
When immigration policy encourages these students to remain in the United States, American workers reap the benefits. New American Economy research shows that every time a state gains 100 foreign-born STEM workers with graduate training from a U.S. university, 262 more jobs are created for U.S.-born workers there in the seven years that follow. “We need a system that allows us to be able to attract and retain top international talent across the globe,” says Byers. “Immigrant labor will continue to play a bigger part in the economy moving forward.”
International workers also help attract foreign investment and help U.S. companies market and sell more products abroad, says Byers. “The more we understand the cultures and economies of other key markets, the more effective our international business strategies will be,” he says.
But U.S. immigration policy is not allowing enough of these skilled foreign workers to settle in the United States, he says. “We have been strong advocates for immigration reform for many, many years,” he says. “This is an issue that we’ve worked closely on with a number of partners, on both a statewide and at a national level. The current immigration system is antiquated and we need to modernize it in order to reflect the current needs of the economy, not only here in Iowa, but across the country.”
Byers previously served as district director for U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, of Iowa, where he learned firsthand about the intricacies and shortcomings of current federal immigration policy. “Our system is ineffective when you think about what the potential really could be,” he says.