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Tom Still: A path to embracing immigration in state

6:07 PM, Feb. 12, 2013  |  Comments

Here's an eye-opening statement about Wisconsin's workforce woes that explains why Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C., may finally come together over the issue of immigration reform.

"Even if we are able to retrain Wisconsin's entire unemployed population and match them with available jobs, we will still fall well short of filling the projected 925,000 jobs created or replaced between 2008 and 2018. This is because our working-age population already peaked in 2010 and is projected to continue declining through at least 2035."

That's from a recent report to Gov. Scott Walker from a working group headed by Tim Sullivan, the former Bucyrus-Erie chief executive officer who was asked to study Wisconsin's workforce needs. The conclusion: Immigration is good for the U.S. economy and Wisconsin shouldn't miss the chance to attract talent it needs to remain competitive.

In a global economy, Wisconsin looks much less international than even its neighbors. Compared to Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan, Wisconsin has a smaller share of foreign-born population and total labor force, as well as fewer foreign-born business owners.

The gap is most glaring when it comes to keeping foreign-born workers with specific skills needed in a knowledge-based economy. The United States annually graduates about 40,000 foreign-born students with master's or doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering or math, but only a fraction are allowed or encouraged to stay.

Eric Schmidt, the former CEO and chairman of Google, summarized it when he said: "Of all the crazy rules in our government, the craziest bar none is that we take the smartest people in the world, we bring them to America, we give then Ph.D.s in technical science, and we kick them out to go found great companies outside of America. This is madness."

It's madness that directly affects the American economy, which has historically depended on immigrants for labor - from manual to intellectual - and as a source of entrepreneurism.

Immigrants founded Google, Intel, eBay, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo!, Hotmail, PayPal, U.S. Steel, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Pfizer and Procter and Gamble, to name a few examples. One-quarter of American Nobel Prize winners since 1901 and 40 percent of the Ph.D. scientists working today in the United States are foreign-born.

Three-quarters of all patents awarded to the nation's top 10 patent-producing universities in 2011 had at least one foreign inventor. During that same period, more than half of all patents (54 percent) were awarded to the group of foreign inventors most likely to face visa hurdles - students, postdoctoral fellows and staff researchers. Those findings were contained in "Patent pending: How immigrants are reinventing the American economy," which was published by the New American Economy partnership.

Aren't immigrants taking jobs from native-born citizens? Certainly not in the case of scientists, engineers and technicians, who remain in short supply nationally due to decades of decline in the production of American-born students in those fields. The Sullivan report addressed that perception, as well.

"There is no evidence that immigration has a negative impact on native employment," it read. "There is evidence that immigration encourages U.S. natives to upgrade their skills through additional education or training. This would encourage native-born workers to shift into the middle class."

While American kids were majoring in finance or the social sciences, foreign-born students were competing to become scientists and engineers. Now that those foreign-born students are earning advanced degrees in U.S. universities, the immigration system is preventing most of them from staying - just as they're needed most.

The solutions include granting permanent residency ("green cards") to foreign students who earn graduate degrees in science and technical fields; creating a startup visa for foreign-born entrepreneurs who want to use their research to form companies; and removing caps on the H-1B temporary high-skilled visa. Also, cities such as Milwaukee can examine best practices in other metro areas that have attracted well-educated immigrants.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature could recast the existing Education Tax Credit so employers could use it to hire people from outside Wisconsin - whether they're from Indiana or India - and help cover their education. A revamped "Workers of the Future Tax Credit" was outlined in a recent report on performance-based education from the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

"If Wisconsin wants a quicker economic recovery and long-term prosperity, we need to embrace immigration," the Sullivan report concluded.

Finally, it appears, national policymakers may be reaching the same conclusion.

- Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at tstill@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com

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