Simple policy changes would protect the skilled talent pipeline needed to maintain U.S. leadership in emerging industries and close national security gaps.
The United States has an opportunity to solidify its leadership in cutting-edge fields, like artificial intelligence and semiconductor manufacturing, that are vital to our economic and national security. To make this happen, Congress must pass legislation to allow more STEM experts to immigrate to the U.S.
With smart policy choices, the U.S. can expand its ability to develop, design, produce, and deploy these advanced technologies. Investing in these fields would ensure that the U.S. can produce components and develop innovations domestically, while also bringing jobs back to the U.S. and reducing our reliance on non-U.S. producers.
But the U.S. is not the only country striving for tech dominance, and has struggled for decades to meet skilled workforce needs. Staying competitive will require in part welcoming more immigrants with STEM skills by building a high-skilled talent pipeline that recruits and retains the best experts from around the world.
“With the world’s best STEM talent on our side, it will be very hard for the United States to lose. Without it, it will be very hard for us to win."
This year, seventy former national security officials who have served under Republican and Democratic Administrations called on Congressional leadership to create new pathways for more STEM experts to come to the United States. Their letter closes with an ominous warning: “China is the most significant technological and geopolitical competitor our country has faced in recent times. With the world’s best STEM talent on our side, it will be very hard for the United States to lose. Without it, it will be very hard for us to win.”
Consumer applications like ChatGPT have highlighted to the public the vast and varied potential of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). But these emerging capabilities are just a small preview of how advanced technologies will continue to transform our world, and experts and elected officials are rightly raising alarms about the U.S.’ ability to stay ahead of its competitors in designing, producing, and deploying these technologies.
Top experts from many of the “industries of the future” (like quantum information technology, artificial intelligence, climate technology, and biotechnology) warn that the United States’ ability to lead in these fields is being hindered by a diminished skilled workforce and barriers to recruiting top-tier talent from around the world.
"A precipitous collapse in legal immigration levels in recent years has exacerbated persistent labor shortages across the economy, particularly for industries that rely on STEM expertise."
These workforce challenges are imperiling U.S. strategies to establish tech dominance, like the effort to bring advanced manufacturing of semiconductors back to the U.S. Onshoring manufacturing would reduce the U.S.’ reliance on economic competitors (particularly China) that leaves supply chains and our national security vulnerable to failure and attack.
The onshoring effort has gotten a boost from new federal funding for expanding manufacturing capacity in the U.S., like the $52.7 billion provided by the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act signed into law last year, along with major investments from private businesses to build factories and ramp up production.
However, this significant investment of time and resources will go to waste if there are not enough skilled workers to design, build, and operate the manufacturing plants and drive other critical sectors of the market that directly or indirectly support these industries. A precipitous collapse in legal immigration levels in recent years has exacerbated persistent labor shortages across the economy (along with also being a major contributor to inflationary pressures that have been driving up retail prices for consumers), and particularly for industries that rely on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) expertise.
“Many countries are competing aggressively to recruit these same skilled workers, taking advantage of the U.S.’ failure to keep up.”
STEM industries rely on workers with high levels of education and specialized skills. Many countries are competing aggressively to recruit these same skilled workers, taking advantage of the U.S.’ failure to keep up.
For example, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been investing heavily in educating and retaining STEM experts to design, build, and deploy cutting-edge technologies, including advanced semiconductors and artificial intelligence. The CCP has made huge gains in educating more STEM experts, while also using strategies like the Thousand Talents Program to recruit STEM experts abroad—including those educated and working in the U.S. The CCP is also working to increase return rates for Chinese-born students who study abroad. (China is currently the top country of origin for international students studying in the U.S., particularly in advanced STEM fields.)
It’s not just China: from Canada to the European Union to Japan and Taiwan, other countries are quickly modernizing and expanding their immigration systems to recruit hundreds of thousands of international students and highly skilled workers. They are capitalizing on the United States’ recently declining international student enrollment rates, where limited immigration avenues available to students after graduation have dampened interest in the U.S. as a place to study and work. The United States’ ability to attract and retain talented individuals is declining.
As Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo—whose agency is responsible for implementing the CHIPS Act—recently warned: “if we don’t invest in America’s manufacturing workforce, it doesn’t matter how much we spend. We will not succeed.” Policy experts support this view, cautioning that the U.S. cannot bring technology manufacturing home without also re-establishing itself as the top talent destination and retaining a significantly higher number of STEM workers.
“100,000 international student graduates each year would stay and work permanently in the U.S. if a pathway existed.”
There is one clear step to help solve the talent shortages that endanger American competitiveness: pass legislation to allow more immigrants with STEM skills to come to the U.S.
Hundreds of thousands of skilled STEM professionals around the world are ready to fill these open jobs, many of them educated at American colleges and universities. The lack of adequate available immigration pathways to stay and work in the U.S. is by far the most significant obstacle standing in their way – but this is a solvable problem that Congress and the Administration can fix.
Congress should establish a direct pathway for foreign-born professionals with advanced STEM degrees to apply for green cards and join the U.S. workforce, as originally proposed in the CHIPS Act. Congress should also establish a postgraduate immigration pathway for international students at U.S. colleges and universities to stay and work in the U.S. after they complete their studies.
FWD.us research shows that 100,000 international student graduates each year would stay and work permanently in the U.S. if a pathway existed; they would add up to $233 billion to the U.S. economy this decade and reduce STEM-related talent shortages by about a quarter.
The U.S. STEM workforce has always relied on the contributions of immigrants.1 This is partly because there have not been enough U.S.-born graduates in these fields to fill all the open roles. But it’s also a competitive advantage for the U.S. to attract the most talented experts in these fields, especially those so vital to our economic and national security.
Unfortunately, the U.S. STEM workforce has faced persistent shortages for decades. To make matters worse, international student enrollment rates have been declining in recent years, as the lack of postgraduate immigration options leaves graduates with no choice but to leave, and also dampens prospective students’ interest in the U.S. In the face of restricted immigration channels, U.S. companies are sending more work overseas and skilled workers are looking for other options.
“Reducing this reliance on other countries, including some with which we compete directly, will protect the U.S. against economic and national security risks.”
One of the most immediate threats to U.S. national security and competitiveness is the U.S.’ reliance on other countries to produce technology that powers both consumer products as well as our defense industrial base.
One example is the decades-long movement of manufacturing, particularly of semiconductors, overseas. The U.S. share of global semiconductor manufacturing has declined from 37% to 12% over the past 30 years, and a third of semiconductor manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Meanwhile, three-quarters of semiconductor manufacturing happens in China and East Asia. For the subset of advanced semiconductor manufacturing, Taiwan controls 92% of the Asian share, with South Korea controlling the other 8%.
Reducing this reliance on other countries, including some with which we compete directly, will protect the U.S. against economic risks (like the semiconductor shortage that restricted production and availability of new cars and other consumer electronics) and national security vulnerabilities (e.g., the risk of defective products, sabotage, and malware, allowing malicious actors to spy on or undermine U.S. military efforts).
The United States must act with urgency to maintain our global competitiveness and innovative edge. The CCP is investing heavily in its ability to dominate in these cutting-edge fields, with their explicit goal being to use these advanced technologies against the United States. The U.S. cannot be beholden to other countries—and especially not the CCP—for the means to defend itself.
“Congress should pass legislation to welcome more immigrants with STEM skills.”
To deliver on these historic investments and bring manufacturing back to America, the U.S. will need to grow its STEM workforce significantly by expanding legal immigration programs. Fortunately, there are already commonsense bipartisan policies that Congress can pass immediately.
Congress should pass legislation to welcome more immigrants with STEM skills, and to expand postgraduate pathways for international student graduates.
Increasing immigration avenues is a winning strategy to bolster American competitiveness and overcome demographic and economic challenges in the decades ahead, so that the United States can remain the world’s economic and innovation leader for many years to come.