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America's Lost Talent

The future of many American cities—and of the nation itself—depends on the skills of foreign-born workers. The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies could spell economic disaster.

Employees at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. (Erin Siegal/Reuters)

On a day when cities across the U.S. are preparing for a “Day Without Immigrants”—a 24-hour strike to remind Americans of the critical role foreign-born workers play in the nation’s economic life—it’s important to note the full scope of their contributions.  

America literally depends on talent from around the world to power its high-tech knowledge economy. Immigrants account for a fifth of all STEM (science, technology engineering and math) occupations workers with bachelor's degree, 40 percent with a master’s degree, and more than half (54.5 percent) with a Ph.D. What’s more, immigrants are significantly involved in anywhere from a third to a half of major high-tech startup companies. More than 40 percent of recently founded Silicon Valley tech companies have at least one immigrant on their founding team.

President Donald Trump’s determination to limit the flow of immigrants into the country (which may well involve curtailing the H1-B work visas that high-tech companies have long relied upon) has already had a measurable impact on the nation’s ability to keep this talent pool stocked. America’s elite engineering schools are seeing a dramatic decline in applications by foreign graduate students—applications are down by as much as 30 percent from 2016, according to a recent report in Science.

America’s dependence on global talent becomes even clearer when we look at its leading high-tech metros. To get at this, my colleague Steven Pedigo, who directs the NYUSPS Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab, crunched the numbers to identify just how much America’s metros depend on foreign-born talent. He looked specifically at three key types of high-skill talent: the foreign-born share of adults (age 25 and older) with advanced graduate degrees, the foreign-born share of adults with a bachelor’s degree and above, and the foreign-born share of the knowledge, technology and arts, design and media workers that make up the creative class. Taylor Blake of the Martin Prosperity Institute made the maps that visualize these data.

Immigrants with Advanced Graduate Degrees

(Taylor Blake)

Let’s start with advanced graduate degrees holders, who particularly contribute to innovation and high-tech success. Look at the dark shades of purple across Northern and Southern California and Seattle on the West Coast; the Boston-New York-Washington Corridor and Miami on the East Coast; and around Chicago, Dallas, and Houston.

Metro Foreign-Born People with Advanced Degrees Foreign-Born Share of Advanced Degrees
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 159,501 57.1%
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 175,433 39.4%
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 332,865 34.0%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 195,908 33.3%
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 643,374 30.4%
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 130,674 30.2%
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 75,410 26.1%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 88,757 25.0%
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 236,959 24.9%
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA Metro Area 47,153 24.1%

Overall, 4.3 million foreign-born Americans have an advanced graduate degree—nearly a fifth of all Americans with an advanced degree. The share is quite a bit higher in many of America’s largest and most high-tech metros. Indeed, immigrants make up more than half of those with advanced degrees in the San Jose metro, literally powering the engine of Silicon Valley. They make up between 30 and 40 percent in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Miami. Immigrants make up around a quarter of advanced degrees in Seattle, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.

Immigrants with College Degrees

Next, let’s look at college graduates. Again notice the dark purple on the east and west coasts, in South Florida, Texas and Chicago.

(Taylor Blake)

There are 10.3 million immigrants across the country with a college degree, 16 percent of the U.S. total. But in large metros and leading tech metros, the share is substantially higher: In San Jose, immigrants make up more than half of all adults with a college degree. In Miami, it’s more than 40 percent, and in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, it’s more than 30 percent.

Metro Foreign-Born People with a BA and Above Foreign Born Share of BA and above
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA Metro Area 309,394 50.3%
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL Metro Area 506,136 41.4%
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA Metro Area 1,006,617 35.9%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA Metro Area 475,076 32.4%
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA Metro Area 1,585,638 30.9%
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA Metro Area 147,461 27.1%
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX Metro Area 316,305 25.8%
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA Metro Area 189,526 24.9%
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV Metro Area 75,919 24.6%
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metro Area 476,186 24.2%

Immigrants and the Creative Class

Finally, we look at the creative class of scientists and technologists, knowledge and professional workers, and arts/design/media professionals.

(Taylor Blake)

Across the nation, 7.4 million immigrants are members of the creative class, 14 percent of the creative class nationally. But immigrants make up nearly half of the creative class of the San Jose metro. They make up almost 40 percent in Greater Miami, a third of Los Angeles’s creative class, and more than a quarter in L.A. and New York. Immigrants make up more than a fifth of the creative class in Riverside, San Diego, Houston, and Washington, D.C.

Metro Foreign Born Members of the Creative Class Foreign Born Share of Creative Class
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA 220,305 46.9%
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 356,018 38.9%
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 715,352 31.6%
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 321,931 29.8%
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 1,089,574 28.1%
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 115,003 22.8%
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA 134,778 22.7%
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 244,912 22.1%
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 347,321 21.6%
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 146,378 18.6%

The short of it is that America’s largest and most dynamic metros do not just attract immigrants: Their high-tech knowledge-based industries and advanced talent bases literally would not exist without immigrants. These metros could not run their advanced high-tech industries without the talent immigrants provide.

The myth is that immigrants compete directly with native-born Americans and take away their jobs. The reality is immigrants do the high-skill jobs that there are not enough skilled Americans to do. These immigrants provide a huge boost to the U.S. economy and its metro regions. On the other side of the ledger, immigrants also do the jobs that many Americans don’t want to do—they work for low pay in restaurants, do hard and dangerous construction labor, and supply much of the workforce for the service economy.

Rather than “stealing jobs” from the native-born population, immigrants offer different skill sets which complement those of Americans and help raise our living standards. Shutting off down the ability of America and its leading metros to attract immigrants would be economic suicide.

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