International students are U.S. businesses’ best hope for growth

Photo by IndusBird on Flickr.

This week, hundreds of thousands of international students will say goodbye to the U.S. to return, with STEM degrees in hand, to their home countries. Far from being a drain on the American economy or threat to U.S. jobs, these talented graduates—disproportionately armed with graduate STEM degrees—could fill a real need for companies that want to grow and create more jobs.

Researchers estimate there will be an annual employment shortfall of 1.3 million unfilled STEM jobs by 2020. International students studying in the U.S. represent the world’s most valuable economic asset—high-skilled STEM talent. According to the National Science Foundation between 40 percent and 70 percent of all graduate students in STEM fields at U.S. colleges and universities are international students.

A new cadre of immigrant economic development and immigrant welcoming nonprofit and government initiatives such as Global Detroit and St. Louis Mosaic are helping employers to connect with international students to fill the unmet demand for STEM talent. A report released last week by Global Detroit, the nonprofit economic development organization that I direct, chronicles an 80 percent growth over the past four years in the employment of international students from seven key Michigan universities to fill unmet STEM talent needs. Our peers at St. Louis Mosaic released a study mapping out the strong fit between local employers’ talent needs and international students’ skills.

When international students help U.S. employers satisfy hard-to-fill STEM jobs, they allow those employers to better serve existing customers, expand their operations, and grow the business in ways that enable the employer to hire more workers. The American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy estimate that every international student who earns a graduate STEM degree in the U.S. who is hired by a U.S. employer creates 2.62 additional jobs in the U.S. economy.

Vivek Wadhwa and researchers at Duke University and University of California, Berkeley have documented that approximately 25 percent of all the high-tech firms in the U.S. (and over 50 percent of the high-tech firms being created in Silicon Valley) are created with at least one immigrant founder or co-founder. Follow-up research suggests that the average high-tech immigrant entrepreneur starts their business 13 years after coming to the U.S. and the No. 1 reason to come here was study as an international student.

Economic developers, elected officials, and American businesses are beginning to realize the incredible economic potential that international students represent. New regulations will enable international students with STEM degrees to work for as long as 36 months after graduation in an Optional Practical Training (OPT) as part of their student visa (provided their U.S. employer uses the federal E-Verify program).

While federal immigration reform would provide a significant boost to the American economy and help U.S. companies to compete to hire the world’s best and brightest, there is a lot of innovation and progress underway. As Jonas Prising, CEO of Manpower Group has noted, “The same old recruitment and workforce practices won’t yield different results, so it is time to harness new people practices and explore untapped talent pools.”

Steve Tobocman, a former state representative and Michigan House majority floor leader, is the executive director of Global Detroit and co-chair of the Welcoming Economies Global (WE Global) Network, a partnership of Global Detroit and Welcoming America, which both receive support from Knight Foundation.