Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
Those lines, from Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” are immortalized on the pedestal at the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York Harbor. They aren’t just words emblazoned on a plaque — they represent the heritage and attitude of freedom that inspired the founding of this nation. A nation whose history, in times of peace and turmoil, has been written by the hands of immigrants. A nation whose migrant legacy remains scrawled on Plymouth Rock and lingers on the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Page Act and across every processing form in the archives of Ellis Island. Yet, the conversation around immigration here and around the world remains tricky and contentious, especially as the Syrian refugee crisis escalates and the 2016 presidential race in the United States heats up.
In reality, immigration has been a constant source of economic vitality, innovation, diversity and social benefit. Immigrants are taxpayers, entrepreneurs, job creators and consumers. Contrary to popular rhetoric, immigrants possess an immense range of educational accomplishments, with about one in three holding a college degree. The immigration system, most agree, is broken and in need of dramatic reform. The U.S. border is more secure than ever; and yet inflexible, outdated laws continue to aggravate attempts at progress while extremists pander to the fearful, fueling unproductive attitudes.
Immigrants have degrees and STEM qualifications
For staffing industry professionals, the issue of immigration should be as major a topic as it’s become to politicians. The crisis plaguing our market is the supposed deficit of available talent with relevant skills — particularly those versed in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The situation has become so dire that nearly every developed country is pouring billions of dollars each year into cultivating a more robust crop of talent with STEM skills. However, data suggest that this shortage is a myth. There are 392,000 educated STEM professionals available to fill 277,000 openings annually. Yet 11.4 million degree-holding STEM professionals today currently work outside of STEM roles.
Even more compelling are U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing that 11.6 percent of immigrants have a master’s degree, professional degree or doctorate degree, compared with 10.8 percent of the native-born U.S. population. Immigrants account for nearly 28 percent of physicians, more than 31 percent of computer programmers and over 47 percent of medical scientists. If you ask the Center for Immigration Studies whether we have a deficit of available STEM workers in the States, the answer is a hearty “no.”
The problem? Less than half of immigrants with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs. In 2011, for example, more than 1.6 million college-educated immigrants were working unskilled jobs as dishwashers, security guards or cabbies. “This situation represents a waste of human capital affecting nearly 23 percent of skilled immigrants,” the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) stated. Meanwhile, annual caps on work visas force thousands of immigrants with advanced degrees to leave the United States each year. And in many cases, U.S. employers and government agencies don’t recognize foreign-degrees or qualify them through available education equivalence offerings. It’s a situation that’s existed for years, and it’s doing little to sate a labor force starved for skilled talent.
We need STEM workers with global perspectives: why are we pushing this talent away?
Kazeem Olanrewaju, a then 38-year-old Nigerian working as an engineer in Iowa, faced deportation in 2013 when his visa expired. He came to the United States as an experienced and educated engineer, seeking opportunity and bringing valuable skills to a nation desperate for STEM expertise.
There’s also the case of Carlos Martinez, one of the first DREAM Act candidates to receive a work permit under the Obama program. Martinez and his parents legally crossed the border when he was nine years old. They remained, in violation of the temporary permits. Although living in the country illegally, Martinez grew up as other American children. He graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA. He attended college and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in engineering. However, because Martinez was not authorized to work in the United States, he couldn’t capitalize on his advanced education, despite job offers pouring in. He instead turned to lawn care as a source of income. Without obtaining a permit through the DREAM Act program, the country would have been short another software engineer.
Even in Canada, once the paragon of immigration initiatives that drove a thriving economy, ethnically diverse immigrants have encountered unprecedented obstacles. In 2007, the jobless rate for foreign talent with university degrees was four times higher than that of native-born Canadians. One year later, a parliamentary report disclosed that 60 percent of skilled newcomers were working at lower occupational levels than before leaving their countries of origin. And the problems, many labor analysts and immigration experts believe, have continued to worsen.
Immigrants are a boon to the modern workforce
At home, immigration issues are again taking center stage. The current crop of conservative White House hopefuls all seem in favor of building a wall around the country’s borders — the only point of departure being how to fortify it: electricity, armed guards, landmines, moats filled with crocodiles or some elaborately horrifying Rube Goldberg contraption. These sentiments have been brewing for the last few years.
In 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed one of the most sweeping and controversial anti-immigration bills into law (SB 1070). It allows police to question and arrest people without warrant if “reasonable suspicion” about their immigration status exists. What’s considered reasonable? That seems to depend on the eye of the beholder. Critics argue that SB 1070 legalizes racial profiling and discrimination. Other states adopted similar provisions under equally xenophobic arguments. What’s fascinating is that agricultural regions which initially supported these laws quickly pushed to abandon them. Why? The crackdown on migrant labor created an unstable and unsustainable economic situation for farmers, the wholesale buyers of their produce and consumers.
Immigrant talent matter. They contribute. And that’s precisely why Germany made its bold move to open the borders.
In August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended the Dublin Regulation and granted asylum to Syrian families fleeing the bloody civil war in their home country. The influx of migrants, however, has been met with protests, vitriolic rallies, and clashes. Hans-Georg Maassen, Germany’s domestic intelligence chief, worries about the radicalization of right-wing groups. There have already been 22 arson attacks on refugee shelters in the east of the country. This extremism aside, Germany expects to take in one million migrants by the close of 2015 — nearly one percent of its population. Officials there are wagering that refugees will bolster, not stifle, the nation’s economy.
As Claire Groden observes in her recent piece in Fortune magazine: “There’s ample reason to think Germany is right. The country’s birthrate is the lowest in the world, and its workforce is rapidly aging. Because it takes resources to make the journey from Syria, many migrants who have successfully completed the voyage seem to be relatively young, well-educated, and well-off. ‘If we manage to quickly train those that come to us and get them into work, then we will solve one of our biggest problems for the economic future of our country: the skills shortage,’ Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor, told Parliament.”
Germany has a long history of positive gains from welcoming outsiders. In 2012, for instance, the 6.6 million people living in Germany with foreign passports paid $4,127 more in taxes and social security than they accepted in state-sponsored benefits. Immigrant talent generated a surplus of €22 billion that same year. And as a generation of German talent retires, signaling a coming exodus of skills and experience from the workforce, the country is hoping to attract 1.5 million skilled immigrants to stabilize the state pension system.
Like Germany, as Groden points out, the United States also faces a “looming wave of baby boomer retirements, which younger foreign workers could help offset with taxes, dollars, and productivity.”
“Beyond that,” she writes, “immigrants start businesses twice as often as native-born Americans, they are disproportionately likely to work instead of collect unemployment, and—contrary to the campaign rhetoric—they aren’t taking our jobs. A 2014 review that surveyed 27 studies globally on the topic found that while wages in some situations might suffer and others might improve, there was no overall depressing effect.”
The future depends on diversity and acceptance
A substantial body of evidence illustrates that welcoming immigrants is an economic boon. Yet without a policy overhaul and serious focus on education equivalence, we could be sending skilled, committed and talented workers away. Or worse, underutilizing them, which ultimately hinders an economy they could otherwise be strengthening.
It’s not anecdotal: immigrants bring more than exotic cuisine to our culture. In an era of skills shortages, unfilled jobs, the need to innovate through diverse global perspectives, and secure our economic future as an entire generation retires, we must embrace what foreign talent have to offer.
As staffing experts, we should be putting our heads together to develop new solutions, champion inclusion and sponsorship efforts, expand education equivalence programs to capitalize on the abilities of immigrant talent, and work closely with our legislators to enact meaningful reform. It’s not only a humanitarian goal, it could also be the spark that ignites a new century of progress, prosperity and peace. Politicians will stir the pot and bureaucrats will procrastinate. Who better to lead the charge than staffing leaders?