top of page

America's STEM shortage: How skilled immigration can propel technological progress (Part 3)

As the US makes it harder for universities to attract foreign students, other countries are working to enroll more of them; this could be detrimental to the nation’s long-term innovation, start-up investment, and output-capacity.

Evidence that the US is losing its luster to competitors comes from comparative changes in international student numbers. Although the U.S. retains the most international students across undergraduate and graduate education as a gross total, within the period 2016-8 this figure grew by only 4.9% in this period, lagging behind both Canada (which increased 39.5% in this period) and Australia (which increased by 25.5%)

Pressure on the U.S. talent pipeline has been exacerbated by a rapid increase in China’s STEM output. China now surpasses the US in the production of Science & Engineering publications. Comprising 18.6% of the global share, Chinese S&E publications have seen an 8.4% growth rate between 2006 -16, in a period where the U.S. has seen its global share fall from 24.4% to 17.8% with a 0.7% growth rate (American publications are still cited at a much higher rate than Chinese publications).

Falling behind in STEM would undoubtedly leave the U.S. less prepared to compete globally among countries in areas critical to national security, including domination in artificial intelligence, aerospace engineering, cybersecurity, robotics, biotechnology and sustainable energy. Limiting skilled immigration by students to the workforce will only weaken this technical lead.

Science and Engineering articles (1000s) across regions: China has eclipsed the US since 2015

Reforming a broken system: Supporting and retaining future innovators from abroad

Given the contribution that foreigners have and continue to play in U.S. innovation, the US should make it easier for foreign graduates in STEM fields to remain and work in the country.

The current debate in Washington has so far mostly concerned itself with finding a permanent legislative solution for Dreamers (undocumented migrants brought to the US as children). Nevertheless, emphasis must also be placed on high-skilled immigration reform to fill critical labor shortages.

America should emulate the best practices of nations like Canada, the UK, and Germany in attracting the world’s best technology talent by fast-tracking application procedures and extending residency options of students post-graduation

Canada’s Global Talent Stream Initiative fast-tracks visa-processing for high-skilled STEM immigration

Canada’s immigration policy, in particular, has been designed to build a highly educated and diverse workforce by aggressively courting the best technical minds from around the world. For example, in 2017 the country launched a ‘Global Talent Stream Initiative’ to cut visa application processing times from 10 months to up to two weeks to individuals with experience in STEM and IT-related fields; Canadian government figures have indicated over 1,000 tech companies have hired more than 4, 000 foreign workers through the program. The country has said it will grant permanent resident status to 177,500 economic migrants in 2018, 191,600 in 2019 and 195,800 in 2020.

In the UK, the Johnson Government announced in September 2019 an ambitious two-year post-study visa for international students to find work. The policy was aimed at attracting and retaining the world’s best talent and solving a crucial skills-shortage in highly-technical STEM disciplines, and supported by numerous university and business leaders.

The US government should endeavour to extend residency options and provide a pathway to citizenship for bright STEM university students post-graduation. One policy advocated by Democratic primary candidate Andrew Yang would be to staple a green card to the advanced diploma (master’s; doctorates)of every international STEM graduate student who graduates from a US university. The government could go further to attract high-skilled. talent bypassing the Startup Act, which currently enjoys bipartisan support. The bill would create a new entrepreneurial visa allowing 75, 000 immigrants annually to remain temporarily in the US if they have raised enough capital to launch a new company, and to potentially remain permanently if their company is a success.

"It makes no sense to have people come, learn at our universities and then go back to their own countries to work and eventually compete against us.”- Andrew Yang

Expanding skilled-visa allotment

The US should also endeavor to expand the entry of high-skilled STEM immigrants to the country with increases in F1 and H-1B visas allocated annually.

Arbitrary per-country caps on employment-based green-cards (permanent residence certifications) must be eliminated. The US issued 1, 127, 167 green cards in 2017-8, including family-based and employment-based green cards. Nevertheless, current regulations stipulate that citizens of one country can be granted at most 7% of all available green cards annually.

This policy unfairly discriminates against Indian and Chinese workers who simultaneously face much longer green card backlogs than any other nationality, whilst being greatly overrepresented among high-skilled STEM fields such as engineering and software development. The Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act, which would phase out per-country limits on green cards, would be a great boon to Silicon Valley (where high-skilled Asian workers are critical) to the benefit of innovation nationwide.

Fairness for skilled immigrant and American workers alike

High-skilled immigration has great economic benefits. Nevertheless, the H-1B visa system needs reform to make it fairer to both migrant and American workers alike.

The H-1B currently visa system ties foreign workers’ residence status to an employer, leaving many vulnerable to labour exploitation (A worker who is fired or laid off can face instant deportation) Legislation provides that foreign workers must be paid at a level commensurate with their level of education and experience. In practice, however, H-1B Silicon Valley software developers are paid $45, 000 less on average than their domestic counterparts.

Moreover, the biggest users of the H-1B system are not currently innovative tech companies like Google or Amazon, but outsourcing IT firms like Infosys, and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Rather than using the H-1B visa as a bridge to permanent immigration, these firms use the program for cheap, temporary labour, rarely providing H-1B employees with a path to permanent residence and citizenship. In 2014, TCS, the leading H-1B sponsor at that time, hired 5, 650 new H-1B workers but only filed for two permanent labour certifications. H-1B visas have been largely used to bring temporary foreign workers from outsourcing companies from India, and move work overseas, undercutting skilled-employment domestically.

Wage distribution for new H-1B workes in 2019. Outsourcing firms like TCS have been accused of paying engineers far below industry averages

Immigration law must be reformed to ensure that an immigrant worker’s status is not bound to a particular employer, allowing for mobility in employment, to safeguard H-1B rights. In particular, emphasis must be placed on ensuring H-1B workers are paid the same average wage-rate as U.S. workers to prevent pernicious cost-saving strategies for the benefit of US employees.

Indian H1B visa holders hold a rally outside the White House with several demands for reforms, Washington DC- February 10, 2019 (The Hindu)

It should be noted that America’s STEM shortage cannot be solved via skilled-immigration alone. An equal investment in STEM education domestically is urgently needed to improve the nation’s technical productivity. The government should commit to expanding federal funding to programs to ensure principles of computer science, and STEM skills are integrated into all aspects of K-12 education whilst partnering with technological non-profits to promote entry to technical disciplines among underrepresented communities like women and minorities

High-skilled immigration can be a harbinger of wealth and prosperity, particularly in the opportunities which talented students and workers can bring to research and employment. Nevertheless, existing H-1B systems are vulnerable to exploitation by overseas outsourcing firms. Through policy informed from best-practices in nations like Canada and the UK, the US can propel dynamic immigrant-led enterprise, without short-selling the livelihoods of domestic tech-workers.


Written by: Thomas Kurian


The Hindu:


American Institute of Physics: ‘Rapid Rise of China’s STEM Workforce Charted by National Science Board Report’:

Government of Canada:

South China Morning Post:

New York Times: outsourcing graph

CATO Institute:





bottom of page