The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an occupational growth projection of 8.8 percent by 2028 among science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. It’s a reliable snapshot, however some reports show a larger, more immediate potential labor shortage of over a million STEM workers by 2024. Groups on both sides of the immigration debate have presented empirical evidence both proving and disproving the existence of this shortage.
What is undisputed is that many people with these skills are needed in the U.S. to solve complex socioeconomic challenges, boost competitiveness and drive innovation across industries. This clear need stands in stark contrast with political stands against foreign national work visas for STEM workers and criticism of even legal immigration efforts.
Challenges for Foreign National STEM Graduates
Programs like the temporary H-1B visa program for highly skilled migrants have become highly controversial, in part because of the stubborn myth that these programs allow foreign workers to take jobs away from qualified American workers.
Negative rhetoric and policies, outmoded visa laws, and demographic and technological changes, along with other factors, will only further compromise our future. At the same time, our intransigence against seeing the impact of policy and demographic need has only fueled STEM recruitment by Canada, China and several other nations that threatens U.S. competitiveness.
However, the tide may be turning. The current administration is trying to ensure that U.S. businesses and foreign national STEM graduates have a more level playing field that benefits the U.S. in the short and long term, with no negative impact on the American workforce.
Positive Steps in Foreign National STEM Graduate Immigration
According to a recent Biden-Harris Administration announcement, they will enact several immigration policies that make it easier for STEM workers to qualify for O-1 nonimmigrant and National Interest Waivers (NIWs) immigrant visas. This widens consideration for those receiving nationally recognized prizes and awards, such as PhD scholarships or dissertation awards. It even allows for some presentations at major conferences as sufficient contributors to “extraordinary ability” visa category offers.
The updated United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Guidelines for STEM NIWs enables its officers to consider other factors specific to STEM fields that are important to an emerging U.S. economy. This includes the use of the emerging technology field list provided by the National Science and Technology Council.
The new policy also adds 22 fields of study that qualify for STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT). OPT allows foreign nationals in F-1 status, with employers enrolled in the E-Verify system, to apply for two additional years of practical training/work authorization. Foreign nationals in F-1 status in nonqualifying fields get only one year of OPT when they complete their degree program.
These small but important advances provide ways for foreign national STEM graduates to navigate the barriers that have them looking to other countries. It enables the U.S. to bridge the STEM worker gap as we continue to expand educational opportunities and incentives for U.S. citizens. As we have seen throughout our history, meaningful immigration policies make the U.S. stronger today and tomorrow.