As Americans, we often take our standing as an economic powerhouse for granted, though in boardrooms and on Capitol Hill, political and business leaders achieved this feat through forward thinking and hard-fought policymaking.
For the most part over the course of the last 40 years, through Democratic and Republican presidents alike, our country embraced that role by expanding trade markets and enabling our nation’s companies to lead the world in innovation.
True to the roots of our country, much of that innovation and success can be attributed to the work of incredibly talented individuals and entrepreneurs, both American and foreign-born, who risked their livelihoods in pursuit of the American dream.
Unfortunately, some companies, in their pursuit of profits, left hard-working Americans behind, opting to move manufacturing centers abroad and outsourcing non-specialized work. While the globalized market revealed some outdated sectors in our economy, displaced workers have not been given adequate resources and training to compete for the high-skilled jobs demanded by today’s market.
During his recent speech to Congress, President Donald Trump signaled that our country was ready to move beyond the typical politics that have held our economy back. By finding new ways to grow our economy and prioritizing smart policies that will create more jobs for American workers, we can finally help those who were left behind.
Among the first steps the president should consider is reforming our outdated immigration system. Fortunately, it appears that Trump understands this issue, calling for an immigration system that prioritizes highly skilled workers by implementing a merit-based immigration system like those used by our allies Canada and Australia.
As we have seen in the past few decades, high-skilled immigrants offer tremendous opportunity for the American economy. Several Fortune 500 companies, and many bustling tech giants, are headed by immigrants — and the long-term benefits to the U.S. of welcoming the best and brightest are clear. Through their work, our economy finds new ways to innovate and creates more business for our companies so that new jobs can replace work that is no longer economically feasible.
High-skilled, specialized immigration has led to a growth in jobs for all Americans and has pushed our lawmakers to pursue policies that focus on retraining workers and promoting science, technology, engineering and math education among our own students. We are now finally starting to produce the workforce needed in this 21st century economy, but it is not yet enough.
Despite the hard work being done to educate and produce our own pool of highly specialized talent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals over the next decade than our nation can produce. That means the only solution is to welcome additional talent from abroad. If we fail to fill these positions in the short term, our tech industry will fail to grow — or even be forced to move abroad to accommodate their thirst for global talent, leaving our own future STEM graduates struggling to find work.
Exacerbating our difficulties is the fact that we are showing the door to thousands of STEM graduates who attend our universities by making it almost impossible for them to immigrate to the U.S. after getting their degree. Given that we are already investing resources in them, a high-skilled worker visa should come stapled with a STEM degree.
A recent survey of hiring managers details the real difficulty of finding the talent our workforce requires — as nearly 8 out of 10 respondents say they have been forced to invest more money in recruiting, and 82 percent report that hiring a foreign-born worker costs just as much or more as hiring American workers. Increasing the difficulty to find workers crucial to the success of our developing technology sector, among others, only disadvantages them.
Recently, Professor Matthew Slaughter, dean of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, wrote about the real, tangible cost to the U.S. economy of allocating fewer skilled-immigrant visas than companies need, noting that the U.S. ranked 9th out of 10 competitor countries based on best immigration policies to promote economic growth. In his paper, published by the American Competitiveness Alliance, Slaughter notes that companies that cannot hire talented immigrants in the U.S. hire outside America, or don’t hire at all.
Americans agree that we need to welcome in top talent, as a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll shows, three-fifths of voters believe that we should maintain or increase the H-1B high-skilled worker visa program. This issue must be treated separately from the other facets of immigration reform. Surely our immigration system must be overhauled, as I advocated during my time in the U.S. Senate, but grouping support for tightening and enforcing current immigration laws into this issue is not smart policymaking.
The president has committed to restarting the engine of the American economy by “making it easier for companies to do business in the United States.” We must also ensure that promise encompasses our businesses’ ability to innovate and compete in this 21-century global economy.
That requires us to pursue and welcome those who bring the skills needed to achieve and jump-start our economy.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is co-chairwoman of the American Competitiveness Alliance and a former United States senator from Texas. She wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.