Many U.S. cities cannot access the skilled workers they need.

In the ongoing immigration debates across the United States, a particular target has been the H-1B Immigrant Visa program, which allows American companies to hire skilled foreign workers for three years with the option to extend up to six years. But the ongoing jobs crisis has turned many pundits against the program. They argue that it disadvantages unemployed Americans.

A new study from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program takes a hard empirical look at the efficacy and geography of the H1B program.

The current H1B program caps the number of visas at 65,000, with another 20,000 visas granted to foreign workers who have earned advanced degrees from American universities. Most of the workers are in the technical fields of science, engineering and math, with the exception of fashion models, who are also exempted from the education requirement.

Since 1998, employers have been required to pay between $1,575 and $4,325 per worker, amounting to more than a billion dollars over the past decade. The money is allocated toward training programs and split between the National Science Foundation and the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration. The idea is that with sufficient training, American workers can eventually fill the slots taken by these temporary foreign workers.

As the map above reveals, demand for forgein-born workers is spiky; the program under-serves the metros that need it the most. Though every metro requests some H-1B visas, 106 metro areas account for 91 percent of them. And those very metros receive proportionately less money for training, about $3.00 per worker, compared to low-demand metros which receive on average around $15.00 per worker.

While politicians make noise about immigration but do nothing about it, American companies are leaving critical jobs unfilled for lack of skilled workers. By analyzing the demand for H-1B workers at the metropolitan level, the report sheds new light on where skills are most needed, and how existing federal programs can be adjusted to better support economic growth.

The report recommends the creation of a new Standing Commission on Labor and Immigration that would:

  • Be an independent, non-partisan body driven by data analysis to make annual recommendations to congress and the president quickly in reaction to business cycles and employers’ skill needs
  • Have a dedicated panel focused on the H-1B visa program that focuses on evaluating and projecting the demand for high-skilled foreign workers to inform the Commission’s recommendations
  • Use metropolitan-level data on employer demand for H-1B workers and regional labor market indicators to assess skill needs at the local level and inform the national H-1B visa cap level

Bringing data and objectivity to this politically charged but economically vital issue would be a step in the right direction for the future prosperity of the United States and its regions.

Openness to talented, bright and ambitious immigrants has been a key factor in America’s economic dynamism and of that innovative and creative dynamism of its leading cities and regions. That’s why I’ve made tolerance one of my 3Ts of economic development, along with technology and talent.

I’ve long argued that America’s short-sighted immigration policies are a key threat to its economic competitiveness and prosperity. "Immigrants from foreign countries spearhead innovations and enterprise in everything from steel making to semiconductors and all forms of high tech," I note in The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited. "We need to make this country welcoming to all enterprising, energetic, and ambitious people. This is the biggest no-brainer of them all."

Photo credit: VIPDesignUSA /Shutterstock

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