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As the economy becomes more tech-centric, there are more opportunities to get an education and a career in the science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing (STEM) fields. Iowa’s technology and innovation system is thriving, and our universities’ STEM-related programs are flourishing and creating a whole new pipeline of talent. Why then is our state, and the rest of the country, facing a STEM workforce shortage?
Our legal immigration system is actively repelling the STEM talent that is being educated at our universities. While these talented workers want to stay in the U.S., annual green card limits and sometimes decadelong visa backlogs force them to either return home or work in countries like China and Canada.
The U.S. is home to the best education opportunities in the world. Iowa State University, for example, continues to demonstrate its leadership as a premier university of science and technology, with nearly 60 percent of its students enrolled in a STEM major. Nevertheless, the STEM workforce shortage is apparent enough that even national security leaders are now sounding the alarm.
Look at the semiconductor industry. The companies therein produce computer chips that are used for everything from smartphones and supercomputers to artificial intelligence (AI) and drones. The industry is a top destination for STEM grads but still nearly three-quarters of semiconductors are produced in East Asia. Meanwhile, the U.S. has fallen from manufacturing roughly 40 percent of the world’s semiconductors in 1990 to only producing 10 percent today.
Specifically, the Chinese Communist Party is leading an effort to become not only the global leader in semiconductor production but also to be the top recruiter of STEM graduates. This would then further bolster Chinese efforts to attract the most talented minds and workers.
We’re losing the global tech race. A recent poll of registered Republicans in Iowa found nearly 90 percent are concerned that the U.S. is falling behind China when it comes to economic competitiveness. To attract and retain superstar talent from around the globe, we must retool the legal immigration system.
Congressional lawmakers just voted on the CHIPS for America Act, which will create a $52 billion tax credit to grow the domestic semiconductor industry. While this act will deliver needed momentum to ramp up manufacturing, high skilled immigrant workers would be the key in providing immediate expertise on semiconductor manufacturing.
Fortunately, the House approved the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) with an adopted amendment proposed by Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) that allows for the admission of essential scientists and technical specialists to “promote and protect that national security innovation base.” With the NDAA now in the Senate, our lawmakers should accept this proposal from the House version but also reconsider a Senate version amendment for the proposal originally in the COMPETES Act to repeal caps on green cards for the most talented STEM workers.
As president of the Technology Association of Iowa, this is a particularly salient point. When working with our esteemed in-state universities, I’m told too often of foreign-born students who come to Iowa to receive an education they want to put to use in a career here in America but have run into roadblock after roadblock from our immigration system.
America cannot afford to ignore the talented minds of the foreign-born individuals whom we educate here if we want to lead in developing new technologies and controlling the global production of existing ones. The U.S. is lucky to be the most desired destination for talent worldwide, but we cannot let our immigration policy strangle America’s potential.
Brian Waller has served as the president of the Technology Association of Iowa.