The share of foreign-born IT workers has increased from 11 percent in 1990 to 40 percent today in the Seattle area. And for software developers — the No. 1 IT job here — nearly half were born outside the country.

Share story

Just how important are foreign-born workers to Seattle’s tech-driven economy?

I looked at the most recent census data and came away with this resounding answer: really damn important.

In total, about 143,000 people in the Seattle-area civilian labor force are in IT occupations — software developers, computer programmers, systems analysts and so on. And nearly 57,000 of them, or 40 percent, were born in another country, according to my analysis of the 2016 data.

For software developers, in particular, the numbers are even more striking: Slightly more than half of the folks in this occupation were born abroad. Software developer is the No. 1 IT job in the Seattle area, nearly half of the total employment.

As dependent as Seattle tech is on foreign-born workers, we still rank far behind California’s Silicon Valley. In the San Jose area, folks born outside the U.S. account for a remarkable 71 percent of workers in IT occupations.

Even so, Seattle has a much higher concentration of foreign-born workers than most other prominent tech hubs. In Denver, they make up just 16 percent of the IT workforce. Minneapolis, Austin, Texas, and Portland are all below 25 percent.

S. “Soma” Somasegar, managing director at the Seattle-based venture-capital firm Madrona Venture Group, believes several factors make Silicon Valley and Seattle a bigger draw for overseas tech workers. 

To some degree, he believes it’s a matter of preference.

“Most people who are coming here from different parts of the world — either for a job, or to study and then get a job — their inclination is to be in the center of the action,” Somasegar said.

And while Silicon Valley remains, unquestionably, that center of the tech universe, Seattle is a rising star.

“Seattle is definitely growing as a technology hub, and there’s more excitement for people to want to come to Seattle,” he said. “The attractiveness and the cachet of the place, and the kind of companies that exist here, that makes it a bigger draw internationally.”

Another factor is the high concentration of large tech companies — and it’s not just Microsoft and Amazon in the Seattle area these days. More big players from out of town, including Google, have set up shop here in recent years.  

“If you’re a foreign-born worker, and you need a work visa, you need a larger company to be able to guide you through the complexities of that,” he said. “So the scale and size of the technology companies plays a role.”

Indeed, it was Microsoft that first brought Somasegar, a native of India, to the Seattle area, after he completed his education elsewhere in the U.S.

The census data show that the majority of foreign-born tech workers here — 36,000 of them — are not U.S. citizens. Many are living in the U.S. on visas granted through the H1-B visa program, which are reserved for highly skilled workers.

The H1-B process is not just complicated — it’s also quite expensive to sponsor an H1-B visa worker, a cost larger companies may be more willing to absorb. Last year, Microsoft applied for 5,029 such visas, and Amazon for 2,622.

The H1-B program has come under scrutiny by the Trump administration. In April, the president signed the “Buy American, Hire American” executive order, calling for reforms to the visa program. One proposed change will revoke a rule allowing spouses of visa holders to work on their own. This could make it more difficult for some workers to come to this country.

A look at the census data over time reveals the Seattle area’s increasing dependence on foreign-born workers to fill tech jobs. In 1990, just 11 percent of IT workers were born in another country.

India and China top the list of birthplaces for Seattle’s foreign-born tech workers, with more than half coming from those two nations. But it’s not all Asia, with Canada and Russia in the third and fourth spots, respectively. Korea rounds out the top five.

Overall, 22 percent of the Seattle area’s civilian workforce was born in another country, which puts the city 16th among the nation’s 50 largest metro areas.