Ram Bhatia was living in Montreal when a U.S. headhunter called him, saying, “We can’t find anyone in the United States.” The headhunter had spent a year looking for an engineer who could help a Wisconsin firm develop linear electrical motors. Bhatia, who is originally from India, had done graduate research in the field and was working on a large Montreal project in electric traction, the technology used to propel high-speed trains.
“Either they could not find someone with that background, or, if they did find someone, the person didn’t want to move to Wisconsin because it’s cold,” Bhatia recalls.
The companies, they need the workers. They can’t find properly trained people.
It was 1984, and Bhatia and his wife had recently had a child and bought a house. Hesitant to uproot the family without a guarantee the United States would allow them to remain in the country, Bhatia agreed to take the job on the condition that the Wisconsin company also sponsor him for permanent residency, commonly known as a green card.
The company did so—and the country has benefited. Over a 35-year career managing teams at both Fortune 500 and small companies, Bhatia helped to create and deliver more efficient power drives and energy storage systems to lower the cost and the environmental impact for utility companies and their customers. As U.S. director of the Medium Voltage Drives (MVD) Group of ABB Inc., a Swiss-based global technology company that employs more than 15,000 people at manufacturing and other facilities in 40 U.S. states, Bhatia led an international team to design the world’s largest adjustable speed drive at NASA Langley Research Center. His professional colleagues elected him to be a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), “which is a rare honor,” he says.
Bhatia’s career exemplifies the positive effect that foreign STEM professionals often have on American productivity and jobs. Past research shows that 262 American jobs are created for every 100 foreign-born workers who are trained in STEM fields at U.S. universities.
But too often immigration policy actually stands in the way of job creation and technological advancement. Although there is a well-documented shortage of qualified U.S.-born workers for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs, especially in specialized sectors like Bhatia’s, the United States limits the number of visas given to high-skilled immigrants to 85,000 per year, leaving many companies without the workers they need. Furthermore, professionals who do receive a visa may only stay in the country for three years, or six with an extension, unless the company applies for a green card on their behalf.
Because his company sponsored him for permanent residency, Bhatia was able to put his three engineering degrees to use for American companies. Bhatia has a bachelor’s from Banaras Hindu University, now an Indian Institute of Technology; a master’s in electrical machines from the University of Aston in Birmingham, in England; and a master’s in power electronics from the University of Toronto. After moving to America, he also completed an MBA at the University of Wisconsin.
Now retired, Bhatia is doing what he can to help motivate and train American students to study STEM fields. He mentors young entrepreneurs and serves on the board of Gateway Technical College, where he helps guide a curriculum that increasingly includes rigorous STEM courses to prepare graduates for jobs in advanced manufacturing and other fields.
“The local business community is looking for local, trained, technical workers who can run their machines,” he says.
Immigration reform would also help companies obtain the skilled STEM graduates they need to operate and expand domestically. As it is, Bhatia sees U.S. firms turn away foreign-born graduates of U.S. schools — workers companies need but fear won’t be allowed to stay in the country. “The companies, they need the workers. They can’t find properly trained people. And then the locally educated or brought-up kids think if you bring someone from outside you’re going to take my job away. My answer is: No, if you’re good, if you compete, no one is going to take your job away. You can compete and the economy will grow. I hope that leaders of the country look at immigration from a different point of view: Not as a burden, but as people who built this country, as people who continue to build this country.”
In retirement, Bhatia is focused on giving back to his community and his country. “India was my birthplace, but America is my country,” he says. “I want to ensure that we each do our part to make our country a better place for the next generation.”
His wife, who is also from India, volunteers with the literacy council and the Volunteer Center of Racine, where she helps seniors with complex paperwork and other tasks. “Whatever this organization asks her to do, she goes there,” Bhatia says.
“Whether you were born here or you come from another country, you inherit the country,” he says. “It should be the responsibility of everyone to help the community to become a better place.”
“I will continue to do everything I can to make America great.”