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Battle for Talent Is Global’: Rust Belt Seeks Visa Reform

Don Hicks, CEO of Michigan-based global supply chain software design company LLamasoft, flanked by employees—from Brazil, Japan, Taiwan, India, Thailand, Iran, Turkey and China—who are currently either on or awaiting confirmation on an H-1B visa. Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

After about 233,000 H-1B visa applications outstripped the cap of 65,000 in less than a week for the third year in a row, business and economic leaders across the Midwest—including Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York—spoke out on the need for H-1B visa reform.

“It’s a significant issue to the Midwest, especially older urban areas,” Ed Wolking, Jr., Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President and Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition representative, said at a Michigan event. “We face the ‘silver tsunami’ more than other regions that deal with out-migration and we need talent in the worst worst way. We hear it especially from the automotive sector.”

The H-1B visa is a temporary three-year employment visa for highly educated foreign professionals in “specialty occupations” that require at least a bachelor’s degree. An additional 20,000 H-1B visas require master’s or PhD degrees. The demand for H-1B visas has exceeded the cap every year since 2003.

Immigration debate: Should H1-B visa quota increase? 4:22

Under current policy, if the number of H-1B visa applications exceeds the cap within a week, then visas are given out by lottery.

Midwestern business leaders argue that this is not solely a Silicon Valley problem, but one that faces many metropolitan areas, including Rust Belt areas struggling to reinvent themselves. According to the Brookings Institute, metro Detroit had the eighth highest number of H-1B visa approvals in 2013, more than Seattle and Boston, as well as the fourth largest number of denials. Global Detroit estimates that had those 11,000 denied H-1B visas been granted, an additional 15,000 more jobs for American workers could have been created.

Some critics argue that the H-1B system displaces American workers, depresses wages, and is abused by outsourcing companies, but business leaders argue that they simply cannot find enough qualified workers, especially in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—to meet the needs of their customers without reaching out to international talent. Partnership for a New American Economy projects that by 2018, the United States will have a shortage of 200,000 workers in STEM fields.

“It’s hard for us to find the kind of people who can do the math and communicate with others,” Don Hicks, CEO of LLamasoft, the global leader in supply chain software design, said at his Michigan headquarters. “I struggle with the terms foreign-born or immigrant, but they’re just people. They’re just our guys. And we’re just waiting around to see who are we going to have to help move.” Of LLamasoft’s 243 employees, fourteen staffers —from Brazil, Japan, Taiwan, India, Thailand, Iran, Turkey and China—are currently either on or awaiting confirmation for an H-1B visa.

According to Global Detroit, immigrants are overrepresented in the STEM fields and comprise 50 percent of all new PhDs; 45 percent of all new PhDs in life, physical, and computer sciences; 40 percent of all new US master’s degrees in computer and physical sciences and engineering; 25 percent of all practicing physicians.

Calling the current situation a “suicidal immigration policy,” Hicks went on to say that it was “the worst possible approach” to educate bright international students at American universities, let them work a few years, and then just as they begin to become important to the company, force them to leave the country so that they can then work for others that compete with American businesses.

Midwestern economic leaders are looking to immigrants to start new businesses which will in turn create new jobs. “Older urban areas are conducive to immigrant reinvestment,” notes Wolking, “especially those with a tie to institutions of higher education.”

According to Global Detroit, Michigan immigrants start businesses at three times the rate of native-born Michiganders. In the area of high tech, immigrants launched 25 percent of all high-tech firms in America, and from 1995-2005, 32.8 percent of all high tech firms in Michigan were started by immigrants.

“If these high-skill immigrants can’t stay,” said Wolking, “They’ll go somewhere else and compete with us. The battle for talent is global.”

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