Retaining More International Students Would Help U.S. Innovate

Policy and Advocacy Assistant Director for Skills and Workforce Development

July 12, 2016

The United States is a global leader in innovation. The ability to generate new ideas, products, and services is essential to maintaining and increasing the nation’s economic competitiveness. Immigrants, international students and immigration reform can contribute to growing a vibrant science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce in the United States.

Occupations in STEM are diverse and have a variety of educational and training requirements.  These occupations include computer workers, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, life scientists and physical scientists, and their educational requirements range from industry-recognized certificates to Ph.D.s.

STEM jobs tend to offer better pay than non-STEM jobs. An analysis by Burning Glass found that in 2013, entry-level STEM jobs, including those in health care, that require a bachelor’s degree or higher paid $14,000, or 26 percent, more than non-STEM jobs on average, and entry-level STEM jobs requiring less than a bachelor’s degree paid more than $10,000, or 28 percent, more.  

The demand for STEM workers is expected to increase. Between 2012 and 2022, the number of STEM jobs is projected to grow by 13 percent to more than 9 million, compared with 11 percent growth for non-STEM jobs. Today, the private sector in the United States is experiencing a shortage of certain STEM workers, such as software developers, petroleum engineers, and production positions in advanced manufacturing, according to a 2015 analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Further, according to a 2014 Brookings Institution report, STEM job vacancies are open more than twice as long as non-STEM jobs; Brookings’ analysis of at least 500 job openings showed that vacancies requiring computer skills were open for an average of 40 to 71 days.

It is imperative that we prepare the workforce to meet the current and future STEM needs of employers. Across the United States, businesses, education and workforce leaders, and community-based organizations are partnering to implement regional STEM workforce development strategies. For example, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Montgomery County, Maryland, recently received grants from the U.S. Department of Labor to improve the skills of immigrants, including people who are limited English proficient, and other target populations for occupations in high-growth sectors such as information technology and advanced manufacturing. Short- and long-term workforce training programs are among the important ways to help employers meet their STEM needs.

On the education front, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimated in 2012 that the United States will need to increase the number of students who receive undergraduate STEM degrees by 34 percent annually in order to meet the projected job growth through 2022. The United States has made a concerted effort to coordinate federal and state STEM programs and activities in the K-12 educational system to boost student interest in such careers and to promote STEM study at the post-secondary level. However, only 48 percent of students from the United States are seeking a bachelor’s or higher degree in STEM fields, far below the needed number of graduates, compared with two-thirds of international students.

Through Optional Practical Training (OPT), international students gain real world experience, which also helps employers fill their workforce needs temporarily. The students’ F-1 visa status is extended for 12 to 36 months while the student works a minimum of 20 hours per week in employment related to the student’s field of study. While its primary purpose is to provide training for students, OPT has been an important STEM workforce development solution for employers. For example, recent analysis by Global Detroit shows that between spring 2012 and fall 2014, nearly 68 percent of OPT international students in Michigan were STEM majors.

As we work toward bolstering the United States’ STEM workforce and increasing the number of students who pursue such careers and education, international students could be another valuable asset for businesses that need to fill these jobs. However, because of outdated immigration policies, businesses are not able to tap into the STEM expertise and talents of many international students. Without a long-term path to working in the United States, these students ultimately return to their home countries and contribute to the growth of their own domestic economies — often in competition with the United States. Immigration reform must address the STEM and other workforce needs of businesses in order to help maintain the nation’s status as a global leader in innovation.

Thank you to Nicole Hemenway, Policy and Advocacy – Skills and Workforce Development Intern, for her contributions to this post.