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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 1, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 32
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Immigration's Other Issue

The good news these days: Lou Dobbs of CNN has stopped attacking every corporate CEO in America over globalization and outsourcing. The bad news: Every night now, his new repetitive strain is all about illegal immigration. Yes, immigration is an important issue for our country, one where politics and policy have become so intertwined that finding an easy solution seems nearly impossible. And if there is something new to report on the issue, I would love to hear about it; but the continuous harping night after night has kept attention focused on one aspect of this national challenge while ignoring another equally important one.

The other news about immigration that is not being discussed by Mr. Dobbs is that the United States is critically dependent upon immigrants to fill jobs in high technology and science. Companies that compete on a global scale — from Intel to IBM, Genentech to Pfizer, Citigroup to Exxon/Mobil — can't thrive without them.

The little-discussed secret here is that the United States graduates only enough engineers and technical talent to fill less than 50 percent of its high-tech jobs — some say only about one-third, in fact. And there is projected to be a growth in these high-tech jobs, so the U.S. "tech" deficit is growing faster than our trade deficit.

How will our companies survive? Only by recruiting foreign workers — many of whom received advanced training in the U.S., after graduating from a university in their native country. These highly valuable tech workers enter the U.S. legally, though unfortunately we are making it more and more difficult for them to come.

As students, those who wish to pursue advanced graduate studies (particularly in technical fields) face more difficult hurdles obtaining visas. While the process is smoother now than a few years back, a survey of major graduate institutions conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools found a 6 percent decline in new foreign graduate enrollments in 2004, the third year in a row with a substantial drop. (Numbers for 2005 did show a 1 percent increase over 2004, however, so let's hope the downward spiral has stopped.)

What happens when foreign nationals receive an M.S. or Ph.D. degree in engineering and then want to work for Hewlett Packard? Believe it or not, they have to go back to their home country and reapply to come back to the U.S. under a work permit! The message seems to be that they need us more than we need them, when, in fact, the opposite is becoming all the more apparent. There are many other countries — including their native lands — that will welcome them with good-paying jobs.

Why the shortfall of U.S. graduates to fill these high-tech jobs? For the past two decades, the number of enrollees in undergraduate engineering programs has dropped steadily. While the number of U.S.-born enrollees may have hit bottom and begun to climb, it is, as yet, only a slight shift and not likely to make a dent in our high-tech brain deficit for decades to come. And the pipeline doesn't look good, with U.S. high school students scoring among the lowest of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries on science and math tests.

My son John works for IBM in California as a software engineer. He is part of a team developing software for an important and rapidly growing area of information technology that uses the new RFID chips to track the whereabouts of packages, groceries, drugs and just about everything else, including (potentially) individuals like you and me. John tells me that part of his software development group is located in India and part in the U.S. Of the 10 software engineers in the U.S.-based IBM contingent, John is the only one who is not a foreign-born transplant on an H-1 visa.

In the late 1990s, computer science enrollments were one bright spot for U.S. students. But, since the bust, the number of American students receiving undergraduate computer science degrees has plummeted. By way of example, when Harvard polled its entering class recently, it discovered only 1 percent of those students expressed interest in studying computer science. At Johns Hopkins, the numbers of C.S. students have gone from over 250 to less than 75!

This lack of U.S.-born technically proficient professionals is not only an issue for our global competitiveness. It is also a matter of national security. Defense companies, and laboratories and organizations like the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, need to hire workers who can receive a high-level security clearance. With an aging technical workforce in our defense industry, we are likely to see many companies unable to fill positions that are critical for our national security.

Securing our porous borders is an important goal, and Lou Dobbs and others are free to have their say. But I think that making sure we continue to attract the best and brightest talent from all over the world to fill high-tech jobs here at home is no less critically important for our nation's well-being.

Oh, and by the way, John e-mailed me last night to say: "Tell your students that the job market in high-tech is hot!"

Editor's note: This column has been corrected since original publication. Graduate student enrollment figures at Johns Hopkins cited in the earlier version were incorrect.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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