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Pro: A steady flow of talented, industrious immigrants can fuel a booming economy

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Thomas J. Donohue
February 13, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, “Is immigration reform necessary to modernize our workforce?”

WASHINGTON -- In a global economy, investment follows talent. When we draw top talent to our shores, investment dollars follow because companies want to be near the best workers.

An infusion of capital and economic development will be a tide that lifts all boats, creating jobs and opportunity for all Americans.

But the reverse is also true. If companies can’t find talent on U.S. soil, or if it becomes too costly and burdensome, they will move their operations elsewhere. It’s in our own best interests to welcome the world’s brightest minds and hardest workers into our economy.

Immigrants can help bridge a growing skills gap in science, technology, engineering and math—the so-called STEM fields that are vital to a modern, competitive economy.

More than half of the master’s and doctoral students studying the natural sciences and engineering disciplines at U.S. colleges and universities are from foreign countries.

Meanwhile, the number of American students studying STEM disciplines is growing at less than 1 percent per year. By 2018, there will be 230,000 unfilled positions requiring advanced STEM degrees, even if every U.S. STEM grad finds a job.

Many of our fastest-growing industries require advanced skills and higher education beyond a bachelor’s degree—22 percent of new job openings through 2020 will require at least a master’s degree.

Among all 25- to 34-year-olds living in the United States, 10.6 percent of those with masters, professional or doctoral degrees are foreign born, compared with 8.5 percent of native-born young people.

Immigration can also address labor shortages in lesser-skilled fields where there are insufficient numbers of either qualified or willing U.S. workers to fill positions.

Many studies have concluded that the greatest percentage of job growth in the United States through 2020 is expected in low- and moderate-skilled jobs that cannot be automated or outsourced. Services like home health and nursing home care, landscaping and hospitality cannot be provided without capable staff ready to do the work.

Finally, many immigrants are entrepreneurial and view America as the best place to put their dreams to work. They want to create jobs and opportunities for others.

Some 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies in the United States were started by immigrant entrepreneurs or their children. Combined, those enterprises pump $4.2 trillion in annual revenue into our economy. Immigrants are behind tech and business giants like Google, Yahoo, Big Lots and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

To fully leverage the education, effort and entrepreneurship of those who have or want to come from around the world to study, work or innovate in America, we must reform our immigration policies.

Under our broken system, those essential contributions to our workforce and our economy are at risk. We’re sending foreign-born students educated in the United States back to their home countries, or to competitors, to compete against us. We’re sending companies the message that their investments may be better off somewhere else, where workers are available to fill their jobs and serve their customers.

We need reforms to our high- and lesser-skilled visa policies so that talent at all ends of the spectrum can live and work in the United States. These reforms must come along with other fixes to our immigration system, including improved employment verification, greater border security and a pathway out of the shadows for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country. It’s time for Congress to set aside politics and modernize our immigration system.

Through common-sense immigration reform, we have a tremendous opportunity to help close the skills gap in our workforce, address labor shortages, strengthen our economy and create jobs for everyone living in America. But if we don’t act on this national priority soon, we’ll fall behind in the global competition for talent, putting our economy and American jobs at risk.

Thomas J. Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Readers may write to him at U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1615 H Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20062.



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