New Hampshire’s stake in immigration reform

The legislation will address a growing need for highly skilled tech graduates


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New Hampshire has an immense economic stake in the outcome of the debate over the proposed comprehensive immigration reform bill now heating up in the U.S. Senate. We are fortunate to have two U.S. senators representing us in New Hampshire who understand the importance to our state.

The pending immigration legislation provides practical steps for expanding much-needed access for U.S. employers to highly skilled tech graduates from other countries and expanding the number of American-born graduates. New Hampshire’s business community acutely feels the need for both.

New Hampshire has the ninth-highest concentration of tech employment of all 50 states. And our thriving advanced manufacturing and high-technology sector is absolutely dependent on highly skilled immigrants with degrees in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields as well as computer science.

Why are we so dependent on imported tech talent? It’s because American college students are not choosing these demanding academic majors, despite the hot job market and high-paying jobs available to tech grads. Each year from now through 2020, the U.S. will need to fill a projected 120,000 computing jobs that require at least a bachelor's degree. Yet U.S. schools are awarding only 40,000 degrees a year in this field -- just a third of the graduates needed.

By 2018, it is projected that only 16 percent of the degrees granted by American colleges and universities will be in STEM fields, and many of those degrees will be earned by students from other countries. But our outdated and dysfunctional immigration system makes it difficult for U.S. employers to recruit the best and the brightest from other countries.

H-1B visas are specifically for highly skilled immigrants. The way these visas are handled is compelling evidence of the dysfunctional state of the immigration system.

Despite the surging demand for skilled high-tech graduates, the number of H-1B visas has been capped at 65,000 each year since 1990, with an additional 20,000 for skilled immigrants with master’s degrees. This year, all the available visas were snapped up in just five days after they became available, leaving thousands of employers unable to hire the talented people they desperately need.

This artificially created shortage of skilled immigrants, combined with America's shortage of native-born STEM and computing graduates, has created the irony of good jobs going begging because qualified people are not available to fill them.

The immigration reform bill before Congress offers short- and long-term approaches to correcting this tech-talent shortfall. For the short term, the bill would expand the number of H-1B visas and create a rational, demand-based system for determining annual quotas.

For the long term, the bill creates a STEM and computer science education fund to boost teacher training in these fields, especially in our K-12 school system. This will help to ensure that young people arrive at college, not only better prepared, but also more motivated to pursue degrees in STEM and computer science.

The immigration bill would help accomplish both goals, which makes it good for New Hampshire and the rest of the country. Senators Shaheen and Ayotte should be commended for their support of the pending immigration legislation.

Jim Roche is president of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

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