Fighting America’s "Brain Drain"

Brain Drain

The new global economy isn’t defined by the battle for the newest machines or precious ore, but a battle of ideas. Not ideas like concepts, fantastic new technologies, or complex economic models, but innovators and inventors–thinkers and entrepreneurs.

With world markets shaky and the United States standing on the brink of a double dip recession, the country is suffering from brain drain: talented, well-educated college graduates, finding dismal opportunities domestically, are seeking their fortune abroad. Silicon Valley isn’t just in California anymore; it can be found in fledgling creative centers in China. Or India. Or Russia.

But the U.S. is working to combat recession-fueled brain drain and entrepreneurial flight. Among the government’s policies is the H-1B program. U.S. businesses use H-1B visas to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields, such as scientists, engineers, or computer programmers. The logic is simple: what if the next Steve Jobs is deprived of a chance to navigate—and potentially bolster—America’s economy? What about the next Elon Musk? Or Peter Thiel? Or Bill Gates?

Immigrants who come to the United States to study at the best universities and then go to work at the nations leading companies (or most vibrant startups) contribute directly and immediately to America’s global economic competitiveness. Highly-skilled immigrants who have started their own high-tech companies have created hundreds of thousands of new jobs and achieved company sales in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Immigrants founded 1 in 4 of the publicly traded companies created between 1990 and 2005. Prominent companies founded by immigrants and their families include Intel, Solectron, Sun, eBay, Yahoo, and Google. And foreign nationals in U.S. were inventors or co-inventors of 25 percent of all patents filed in U.S. in 2006. Immigrants have founded 52 percent of Silicon Valley’s companies and created millions of American jobs.

“We heard from the entrepreneurs in the community and they articulated a concern that there are not adequate avenues for the best and brightest students who come here to the U.S. for education to remain here in the U.S. to use the skills and knowledge they have gained for the good of this country,” said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Alejandro Mayorkas in October “What we see is an exodus instead. We educate and we train, and because the access is not available to them, they leave and they contribute to other countries.”

The H-1B visa, however, is in high demand, and legal and economic pressures have made competition fierce. At the beginning of each fiscal year in October, the USCIS begins making visas available, though it starts accepting applications from employers six months prior. There are only 65,000 ‘cap-subject’ H1B visas available each fiscal year, distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.  While the number of visas approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services generally exceeds the statutory cap implemented by law, the number of approvals has been gradually shrinking since the beginning of the financial crisis. In 2008, a total of 276,252 visa applications (initial, renewals and extensions) were approved; in 2009, that number decreased slightly to 214,271 while 110,367 initial H-1B visas were issued from consular offices. The USCIS reached its FY2012 statutory cap of H1B visas by November 22, 2011, barely two months into the fiscal year. Demand for H-1B has increased, despite America’s economic woes, while the USCIS has approved less and less.

Despite the benefits of allowing specialized workers to emigrate to the U.S., the H-1B program, like all immigration laws, is far from cut and dry. Critics cite wage depression, hidden costs, and risks for employers and employees as major problems. The United States General Accounting Office found in a report in 2000 that controls on the H-1B program lacked effectiveness, despite the fact that the average education level of applicants has gradually increased over the past decade. The most common complaint is one you’ll probably hear on the campaign trail during the 2012 election cycle: that immigrants come to the United States and take high-paying jobs from hard-working Americans, working for less (some studies have found that H-1B workers are paid significantly less than U.S. workers).

With heavy competition for H-1B visas, staffing agencies usually help match applicants with a potential job; for example, Interfysio help internationals who are searching for occupational therapist jobs in new york acquire these visas. These international staffing and recruiting agencies work with immigration attorneys who have experience in obtaining these highly sought after visas. Other ventures have taken more creative, sometimes drastic, approaches to getting around the cap on visas: Blueseed, a sea steding endeavor started by Silicon Valley founders Max Marty and Dario Mutabdzija, is looking to be the “Googleplex of the sea,” a sea-based tech incubator nestled safely in international waters, outside of jurisdiction and the legal caps on H-1B immigration visa.

Each year, many American employers, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, lobby Congress to raise the H-1B cap, stating that it is too restrictive and companies cannot hire the workers they need. In his testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology, Gates argued that the shortage of trained scientists and engineers in America has grown so severe that it necessitated a dramatic increase in the number of highly-skilled immigrants permitted to enter the country, and that the current limit of 65,000 H-1B visas per year “bears no relation to the U.S. economy’s demand for skilled professionals.”

Gates is right. Increasing the H-1B cap is certainly not an immediate fix for America’s economic woes—with high unemployment, political deadlock, and a looming double dip recession, policy-makers are searching for short-term strategies to jumpstart the flagging economy.  49.1 million Americans live in poverty and 25.4 million workers are unemployed, involuntarily working part-time, or marginally attached to the workforce. Twenty-nine months after the recession officially ended, the economy is barely sputtering ahead at a 2 percent annual rate. But some economists believe that today’s grinding unemployment and slow growth are masking the transition to a vibrant digital economy. If the advanced economies of the world are enduring a painful transition from one era (industrial) to another (post-industrial), the United States would do well to foster a vibrant technology sector. America no longer needs the best drills and biggest machines, but the sharpest minds in the world to continue to be an entrepreneurial beacon for the entire world.

Written by Tommy Swanson

Tommy Swanson is a marketing fanatic who has a passion for non-profits. Swanson helps numerous nationally recognized non-profit organizations and businesses develop their web marketing strategy at Think Stripes, a content marketing agency. He is also a serial online entrepreneur who has built and sold several large businesses since his early teens. You can find him tweeting @tommyswanson.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002508863657 Bit Shuffle

    A lot of people seem to think that “employment” is a zero-sum game. That is to say, for every H1B visa holder getting a job, some true-blooded American is not.

    I don’t think this is the case. There isn’t a finite number of positions available.  I’m all in favor of the H1B program so long as it is not used simply as a mechanism to drive down wages. Bringing in well-educated, in-demand talent only enriches our economy as a whole.

    As a software engineer, I know that I am already competing on the wage-level with talented engineers in Bangalore and elsewhere who will work for a fraction of the income that I demand. These engineers don’t have to be in the United States to compete. Ours is truly a world-wide digital economy in many respects.

    Limiting H1B visas does reek of racism and protectionism.