David Pokrajac, a math prodigy from the former Yugoslavia, is a success by any country’s standards. After earning a PhD in computer science with a specialty in spatial data mining from Temple University in Philadelphia, he’s now a professor at Delaware State University, where he also serves as assistant vice president for business analytics and chief data officer. He has received multiple awards for excellence, holds a patent for knowledge analysis in spatial data, is doing pioneering work on simulation algorithms for breast-tissue, and prides himself on involving graduate students in advanced research.
“My experience as an immigrant to the United States is very positive,” says Pokrajac, who is now a U.S. citizen. “I love America. If there was any war, I would defend America as best as I can.”
But Pokrajac fears his adopted country is losing the war in science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM. From his vantage point, American students don’t seem very interested in STEM academics. In his computer science department, he estimates that three-quarters of the graduate students are foreign-born. State data shows that in 2014, half of STEM PhDs in Delaware and one-third of STEM master’s degree graduates were foreign students in the country on temporary visas.
Pokrajac says foreign students who graduate from his department don’t have trouble getting jobs. Whether U.S. companies can retain those graduates after their initial visas expire, however, is another question. The competition for visas granted to high-skilled workers is intense. Small startups with limited funds and no immigration expertise may have a particularly difficult time hiring them.
“It’s not easy for a foreign student, it’s not easy for a company,” Pokrajac says.
We need to increase the number of highly qualified personnel so that we can catch up with other countries that are our competitors in science and technology.
Delaware suffers from a particularly dramatic shortage of STEM workers. In 2014, there were 19.3 STEM jobs advertised online for every one unemployed STEM worker. While immigrants make up just 8.5 percent of the state’s population, they fill about 25 percent of STEM jobs in the state.
During Pokrajac’s time on his department’s search committee, the computer science department hired six assistant professors. All of them were foreign-born. “They were the most qualified,” Pokrajac says. “Not only the ones who were hired, the overwhelming majority of them who applied were foreign-born.” He says the search committee actively tried to hire Americans, to diversify the staff. “We were not even successful in getting American-born candidates to interview.” This is why Pokrajac believes that immigration reform is vital for America’s competitive success. “We need to increase the number of highly qualified personnel so that we can catch up with other countries that are our competitors in science and technology,” Pokrajac says.