Supporting STEM Education Where It’s Most Needed

shutterstock_108612080Geography is a topic often lost in national-level immigration policy and the ensuing conversations around comprehensive reform. We frequently hear statistics cited at the national level. However, all too often, data at the metropolitan and local level – where the challenges and opportunities of immigration policy play out – are overlooked in policy debates.

A new Brookings report released last week builds upon the issue of  H-1B demand for high-skilled workers at the metropolitan level, which they addressed in a 2012 report, by looking at the geographic component, or lack thereof, of the distribution of fee revenue collected from H-1B visa applications. Presently, a portion of the fees collected from H-1B visa applications are distributed relatively evenly across the country to fund grants for skills training and STEM education. The goal of these grants is to develop further STEM education and skills among the native-born U.S. population. However, as the report states, “fees have been distributed disproportionately to metro areas with a lower demand for H-1B workers.” The authors specifically note that,

“Between 2010 and 2011, 106 metropolitan economies demonstrated high demand (at least 250 requests) for H-1B visas from local employers looking to hire high-skilled foreign workers in specialized occupations. However, between 2001 and 2011, these high-demand H-1B metro areas received only $3.09 in technical skills grants per working-age person, compared to $15.26 for metros that had a lower demand for H-1Bs. More distressingly, thirty-six of the 106 high-demand H-1B metro areas received no ETA [Employment and Training Administration] skills grants over this ten-year period.”

Why is understanding the geography of STEM and high-skilled demand important? A recent analysis of job openings data reveals that STEM jobs take longer to fill than non-STEM jobs and that there are more vacancies in STEM fields than there are STEM degree holders in the average metropolitan area.

In 2010, for example, at the national level there were seven job openings in computer occupations for every graduate from a relevant computer major. Yet in high-tech metro areas the demand was even greater: 25 to 1 in San Francisco, 19 to 1 in San Jose, and nearly as great in Austin; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Des Moines; Charleston; and Charlotte. Furthermore, high-skilled jobs and a scientifically-educated workforce are important for driving innovation in metropolitan areas and have significant multiplier effects for the cities within which they are located.

What, then, is the problem with the present system? The current method for distributing funds from H-1B visa fee revenue does not take into account the geography of high-skilled and STEM industry and job location, or of H-1B visa demand. This mismatch is due in part to lack of data as well as funding decisions based on grant application and capacity for implementation. In order to maximize fund effectiveness and efficiency, the authors of the new essay suggest that the “Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration better focus flows of H-1B visa revenues on metropolitan areas with a high demand for H-1B workers.”

With a range of new legislation being proposed on high-skilled temporary workers, including a new bill aimed at cutting alleged fraud in the system, studies like the Brookings report are an invaluable reminder that we must consider a host of issues regarding demand, location, training of native born workers, and interplay between permanent and temporary workers  as we move forward in this area. The more information we have on what is working and what is not, the more likely we are to finally craft legislation that meets the concerns of both business and labor in achieving economic growth and security.

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