U.S. House Democrats are trying to bring immigration reform, already passed by the Senate, to the floor for a vote by circulating what’s called a discharge petition.
I support their efforts, especially the work to increase the number of H-1B visas for highly skilled workers. The majority of Americans also support immigration reform, according to a recent poll commissioned by FWD.us. It is a key factor in our economic growth.
Washington state has an estimated 34,000 high-tech jobs that sit waiting to be filled now, according to a 2013 report by the Boston Consulting Group and Washington Roundtable. That number is projected to increase to 50,000 by 2017. These are jobs that build careers, support families and power our continued economic prosperity.
Washington has the fourth highest number of high-tech jobs of any state, but we are 46th when it comes to the number of graduate students in science and engineering, according to the nonprofit Washington STEM.
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Because of this gap between high-wage, highly skilled tech jobs and the computer-science graduates needed to fill them, our state is the No. 1 importer of college graduates per capita.
The Washington State Employment Security Department projects computer and mathematical jobs will grow 2.6 percent annually between now and 2016, which translates to 3,800 new jobs each year, including 1,600 software developer positions. These jobs pay 70 percent higher than the state average, but require individuals with strong analytic and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) backgrounds.
The reality is there simply aren’t enough computer-science graduates in America or Washington state to fill the need for qualified talent across a broad array of industries. That gap will continue to grow unless we take steps now.
Half of all graduate degrees in computer science or engineering in the U.S. are earned by foreigners. An estimated 95 percent of American high schools don’t have advanced-placement courses in computer science.
Fortunately, there are solutions to this problem, and they are part of a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. One is to expand the number of workforce-ready professionals who join America’s leading industries through the existing H-1B visa system.
H-1B visas are issued to foreign workers with specialized knowledge and have a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. The application period for H-1B visas opened April 1 and the number is capped at 65,000 for the 2015 fiscal year, with an additional 20,000 for graduates with advanced degrees. Last year the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 124,000 petitions for H-1B visas in the first week.
Right now, many tech workers who were born abroad and studied and trained at U.S. universities can’t remain in the U.S. to work here. So after investing in their skills and education, we lose them to their home countries. There, they forge their own paths and compete against U.S. companies.
The U.S. needs to pursue a dual track: Expand the pool of highly skilled workers now, so that our companies can continue to create jobs, stimulate the economy and compete in the global marketplace. At the same time, invest in more public-private partnerships in STEM education to prepare our children to enter the 21st-century workforce.
Last year, the U.S. Senate passed bipartisan legislation to increase the number of H-1B visas and green cards. Unfortunately, the U.S. House Republican leadership declined to move forward on any pieces of immigration-reform legislation this year.
The lack of action hurts businesses. That’s why we hold out hope that this move from Democrats to bring immigration reform to the floor will yield some progress or a vote.
Filing a discharge petition — a procedural move requiring a majority vote to discharge stalled legislation from a committee to the floor for a vote — is rare, but it’s a clear indication of how strongly the Democratic leadership feels about immigration reform.
There are severe economic consequences of doing nothing, and conversely, broad opportunities in job creation and economic growth that would result from simple changes.
Congress needs to help ensure that we can compete, lead and innovate in global technology.
Michael Schutzler is CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association.