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Immigrants Help Solve the Looming STEM Worker Shortage

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As an engineering hardware manager working in the rapidly growing automotive electronics industry, I've been baffled by politicians who champion anti-immigration policies. If we want our economy to prosper, we should eagerly welcome the world-class talent that's knocking at our door.

I should know. I've witnessed firsthand the excellence newcomers bring to this country. About half of my 30-person engineering team is comprised of foreign-born workers or children of recent immigrants. As a hiring manager, I've recruited the best, assembling a whip-smart, talented group that keeps us on the cutting edge of a highly competitive field.

Car companies like Mercedes-Benz and Ford hire us to make high-tech accessories for their cars, such as screens, radios, embedded cell phones and wifi devices. As connectivity devices become more integral to the car industry, demand for our work continues to rise. I've worked in this industry for more than 15 years and see how important diversity is to staying ahead of the competition. The type of work we do is highly technical but also creative because we're always trying to solve problems. That's why the diverse perspectives on my team are so critical to helping us find out-of the-box solutions faster. Additionally, many of our bilingual employees give us a competitive advantage in the global economy. I'm proud to work alongside colleagues who work every day to make safer cars that improve consumers' lives.

I've heard people say that they want to restrict immigration because they fear immigrants will take our jobs. But in my experience, there aren't enough American-born workers to fill all these jobs. I just looked through a stack of resumes for summer internships, and the vast majority of applicants were immigrants or first- and second-generation Americans. This is emblematic of a broader trend: immigrants play a large role in science, technology, engineering and math—or "STEM"—fields. In my home state of Illinois, for example, 24.1% of STEM workers were born in another country, according to a New American Economy (NAE) analysis of various 2017 datasets.

It's tough to overstate this importance because employment in STEM jobs has grown significantly, exceeding overall job growth. From 1990 to 2016, STEM occupations have grown 79%, with computer jobs increasing 338% over that same period, according to the Pew Research Center. These fields are expected to play a critical role in future U.S. economic growth.

In my state, the labor market for tech talent is tighter than that on the coasts. That's why I support policies that help keep these skilled workers right here, where they can contribute to the workforce and the economy. In Illinois alone, immigrants contribute $17.6 billion in taxes, include 118,055 entrepreneurs and employ 390,685 people. Nationally, they pay $405.4 billion in taxes, account for nearly 3.2 million entrepreneurs and create about 8 million jobs. If our country's policies send the message "we don't want you here," then where will all this talent go? To foreign competitors.

I'm lucky to have a team of talented engineers, but I know the tech industry as a whole struggles to find the skilled workers they need. The recent spate of anti-immigration policies doesn't help their case. The H-1B visa program, which is the main way U.S. companies hire high-skilled foreign workers, is capped at 65,000 visas, plus an additional 20,000 visas for foreign applicants with a U.S. graduate degree. Demand for these workers in recent years far exceeds the available number of visas. Last year, nearly 200,000 people applied, and for the past six consecutive years, the H-1B visa cap has been reached within a week of the application period opening. And existing H-1B visa holders are grappling with the looming possibility that the program that allows their spouses to work is on the chopping block. This presents just another incentive to move to a country that's more inclusive.

Immigrants play a critical role in filling labor gaps; we should be embracing them. That means reversing policies that deter the hiring of foreign-born workers, creating a more streamlined immigration process and cultivating a more supportive environment for newcomers.

Increasing immigration is the key to keeping our economy thriving. And the great thing about America is that people want to come here. So let's welcome them with open arms.

Guest blogger Sheldon Waite is an engineering hardware manager in Chicago's Northwest suburbs.


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