April 8, 2009
Do We Need Foreign Technology Workers?
By THE EDITORS
In a continuing series on immigration, Room for Debate this week examines the issue of skilled foreign-born workers, many of whom are here on temporary guest worker visas. An article that will appear over the weekend will explore this topic.
For the high-tech industries, particularly, foreign-born workers on temporary H-1B visas are an important labor pool. Many of these workers arrived in the United States as students and stay on through the H-1B program. Many also go on to become permanent residents and founders of startup firms. But there is longstanding criticism among some labor groups that workers on such visas suppress engineering salaries and actually make it easier for employers to move more jobs to low-cost countries like India.
We’ve asked several experts how immigration policy affects high-skilled workers and the industries that rely on them. Please join the discussion in the comments section here.
Our Real Problem Is the Brain Drain
Vivek Wadhwa is an executive in residence for the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University and a senior research associate in the labor and work-life program at Harvard Law School.
The debates about H-1B visas and legislation restricting firms getting federal bailouts from hiring foreign students are badly out of touch with the new global reality. The U.S. is no longer the only land of opportunity. Highly skilled foreign-born workers are leaving the country in droves.
Research at Duke, Berkeley, New York University and Harvard has shown that skilled immigrants have fueled our tech boom. Over half of Silicon Valley tech start-ups and a quarter of those nationwide were founded by immigrants from 1995-2005. In 2005 alone, these companies generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers — a number greater than the number of H-1B workers in the tech industries over the prior 10 years combined. Foreign nationals in the U.S. contributed to 25.6 percent of our global patents in 2006.
But because of shortsighted immigration policies, we increased the numbers of temporary H-1B visas over the years, but not permanent resident visas. So we have about 500,000 engineers, scientists, doctors and other professionals working for American companies who are stuck in “immigration limbo.”
With thousands of workers returning to India and China, the next Google or Cisco may be founded overseas.
While they wait to become permanent residents, they can’t change jobs without losing their position in line or even accept a promotion. Their visas don’t allow their spouses to work or obtain Social-Security numbers which are needed for things like driver’s licenses. So they live like second-class citizens.
Add to this the isolation and loneliness which most immigrants feel when they come to a new land and the burgeoning economies of India and China, and you have the perfect storm for diminishing U.S. competitiveness. Thousands are returning home every month.
Our survey of 1,203 returnees to India and China revealed that they were doing better back home. Returnees moved up the organization chart and found better professional opportunities. They enjoy being close to parents and friends. They are making less money but enjoy a better quality of life. The majority want to start a company and think that their home countries are more fertile.
We also surveyed 1,224 foreign students in the U.S. and learned that they were thinking much like the returnees. Only 6 percent of Indian, 10 percent of Chinese, and 15 percent of European students want to stay permanently. (In the past, most Indian and Chinese Ph.D.s in science and engineering ended up making the U.S. their home.)
This is even most troubling when you consider that 47 percent of all U.S. science and engineering workers with doctorates are immigrants as were 67 percent of the additions to the U.S. science and engineering work force between 1995 to 2006. And roughly 60 percent of engineering Ph.D. students and 40 percent of master’s students are foreign nationals.
This is great for India and China. China will be able to develop innovative and competitive products. India will be able to offer better and cheaper outsourcing services. Both countries will see thousands of new companies being started — one or two of which may be the next Google or Cisco. By encouraging this exodus, we won’t create new opportunities for Americans, but only more unemployment.
January 18, 2010
By THE EDITORS
A recent Times article described how China is stepping up efforts to lure home the top Chinese scholars who live and work abroad. The nation is already second only to the United States in the volume of scientific papers published, and it has, as Thomas Friedman pointed out, more students in technical colleges and universities than any other country.
But China’s drive to succeed in the sciences is also subjecting its research establishment to intense pressure and sharper scrutiny. And as the standoff last week between Google and China demonstrated, the government controls the give and take of information.
How likely is it that China will become the world’s leader in science and technology, and what are the impediments to creating a research climate that would allow scientists to thrive?
However, to attain quality, China will also have to master the skills of nurturing talent and supporting creative culture. China’s current practices of central planning and quotas for patents and publications reveal an industrial nostalgia rather than an innovation economy ethos that embraces creative leaps and serendipity. There is also the question of whether China can create a comprehensive innovation system that marries its growing prowess in science and technology to related fields such as entrepreneurship, design and social innovation that are essential for realizing the value of scientific achievement.
Meanwhile, China continues to build its talent engine, and to the extent that it is perceived as a place for creating wealth, for finding academic opportunity as well as research funding, talent will flow there in increasing numbers. This blending of indigenous and imported talent will be another modality by which quantity is translated into quality within the Chinese system.
Many Reasons to Return
Vivek Wadhwa is a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, senior research associate at Harvard Law School and director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa.
When I joined Duke University’s Masters of Engineering Management program in 2005, nearly all of the graduating Chinese students told me they planned stay in the U.S. for at least a few years. Most said they wanted to make America their new home.
Anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. and a booming economy in China are causing highly skilled workers to go home.
Indeed, according to the National Science Foundation, “stay” rates for Chinese Ph.D.’s have hovered around 90 percent for the last two decades.
Now when I talk to my Chinese students, most are buying one-way tickets home. When my team at Duke, Berkeley and Harvard surveyed 229 students from China during October 2008, we found that only 10 percent wanted to stay permanently. Fifty-two percent believed that the best job opportunities were in China, and 74 percent thought the best days lay ahead for the Chinese economy.
Add to this the anti-immigrant hysteria which is building in the U.S. Senate (new legislation has been proposed to restrict visas for foreigners) and a booming economy in China, it is no wonder they’re headed home. There are no hard numbers available on the numbers of returnees to China, but anecdotal evidence indicates that tens of thousands have already returned and larger numbers will return home over the next few years.
When you visit the research labs of multinationals in China and meet local entrepreneurs, you notice that top positions are filled by returnees. They are bringing home valuable knowledge about Western markets and experience in creating innovative technologies. And they are telling their friends still in the U.S. how good things are back home.
In another survey of 637 returnees to China conducted from March to September 2008, we asked how they had fared since returning home. Seventy-two percent said they were doing better professionally. The percentage in senior management slots increased from 9 percent in the U.S. to 36 percent when they returned. Seventy-seven percent valued the opportunity to be back with their family and friends.
Everything wasn’t rosy: Returnees complained of pollution, reverse culture shock, inferior education for children, frustration with excessive bureaucracy and health-care quality. The bottom line is that the U.S. is providing China a huge amount of foreign aid without even realizing it. We’re exporting engines of economic growth and helping them become our long-term competitors.