Future of high skill immigration outlined by federal leader visiting Seattle. Is immigration reform coming?

The Metropolitan Seattle Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting today with key immigration experts to discuss the need of many Seattle companies to meet their staffing needs with highly skilled workers from overseas.  Northeastern University -Seattle’s Dean, Tayloe Washburn, attended this special presentation, at which US Citizen and Immigration Service (CIS) Director Alejandro Mayorkas outlined the increased use of EB-5 and H-1B visas and discussed recent changes in his office to make these programs work more efficiently.  A panel of experts from  local companies shared their views and recommendations.

Seattle’s innovative companies face concerns in meeting their needs for obtaining high skill workers.  There are thousands of unfilled computer science and engineering jobs at present at these companies.  Existing excellent higher education institutions here in Washington produce graduates in these areas, but the number of graduates falls far short of the needs of companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing, as well as dozens of technology companies.  Just last month, Microsoft had 6,000 unfilled positions, of which 3400 were in engineering and research areas.

Northeastern University is establishing a graduate campus in Seattle in part to address this problem and help increase the production of workers and students with graduate degrees in areas such as computer science, engineering and health sciences.   For companies with immediate need for skilled workers that cannot currently be filled in this state or nation, securing an H-1B visa is one possible way to recruit workers from outside the US.  An H-1B visa is used by leading companies which seek to bring immigrants with essential skills.   There is a cap on how many of these visas can be issued, and the demand is such that the cap for 2012 was met only two months into the year.  Microsoft, Google and Amazon invest significant efforts into securing these visas.

The seminar included a panel of HR leaders, including Karen Jones from Microsoft. She said this is a critical issue as many businesses rely on STEM  (science, technology, engineering and math) talent to remain competitive in a global market.  She noted that our colleges and universities do not produce enough graduates in STEM to fill needs we have.  By the year 2020 we will need an additional 1.6 million STEM graduates; however American schools are projected to graduate less than half that number.  This requires many American companies to look outside the US to meet their staffing needs.  As a nation we should be concerned, as other countries are rapidly filling this gap and offering incentives for companies to site outside the US.

Beth Sharpes from the global travel company Expedia, which has its headquarters in Washington State, also outlined their many unfilled positions in highly technical areas. The cap on H-1B has been very frustrating.

Amy Garret-Cowan manages immigration recruitment at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  In its Seattle offices it has over 200 foreign nationals from 53 countries.  To accomplish its mission in biomedical research,  Fred Hutchinson must compete in global workforce recruitment, as it needs the very best scientists, no matter where they are from.  The pool it is trying to attract is smaller and  harder to find.

Changes the panelists would like to see include removing the caps on H-1B visas, increased funding for STEM education, and more efficient processing of green card applications.  The conference ended with a recognition that nothing is likely to happen until after the November election, and that a large-scale education of Americans is required to realize how very important immigrants are to the health of our economy now and into the future.  US Representative Adam Smith noted that an obsession with undocumented foreign workers and a mistaken perception that our unemployment rate requires that we admit fewer foreign workers are two policy perceptions that make progress in Washington DC very difficult.

Colleges and universities in Washington state, including Northeastern University-Seattle, must work together and do all we can to produce home-grown talent in STEM areas to meet the needs of the companies we are currently fortunate to have here in our state.  This seminar made it very clear that if we fail to meet this challenge, we put at risk the retention and growth of these innovative companies.

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