400 Percent Increase as Foreign STEM Worker Ranks Explode in U.S.

Experts across political spectrum contend nothing about high-tech job market justifies unprecedented surge since 2008

A recently released study found a 400 percent increase in the number of foreign students graduating from American universities and then remaining to work in technology fields, but several experts questioned the economic justification.

The Pew Research Center examined government data related to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program after expansions during the previous two presidential administrations. The program allows foreign students studying in the United States to work legally in the United States after completing their academic studies — ostensibly to gain experience as part of their education.

Under executive actions, the maximum length of employment under OPT more than doubled to 29 months beginning in 2008 and tripled to 36 months in 2016. A majority of the participants during those years have worked in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs.

The data collected by Pew show that the number of participants approved for STEM employment jumped from 34,000 in 2008 — the year of the first expansion — to 172,000 in 2016, when the second expansion took effect.

But researchers who study employment trends in STEM occupations argue there is no compelling evidence of a worker shortage that would warrant increasing the labor supply.

“It’s not justified,” said Norman Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis. “There is one way to see this: Wages are not going up. Wages are basically flat … You don’t have to be a rocket economist to see this.”

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The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) reported in 2014 that the United States had more than twice as many residents with STEM degrees than workers employed in STEM occupations. Steven Camarota, who co-wrote that report, told LifeZette that the data have not changed significantly since then.

Camarota, director of research at the Washington-based think tank, said the Pew report raises questions about the wisdom of increasing the supply of workers through OPT.

“This confirms what we already knew. We have too many STEM graduates,” he told LifeZette. “Our immigration policies in no way reflect a rational assessment of what we need.”

Camarota’s conclusions, based on a review of wage data, back up the assessment offered by Matloff of UC Davis.

“We don’t see evidence of a big increase in wages for STEM jobs, with some exceptions,” Camarota said.

OPT Has Passed H1-B Visas
Critics long have contended that businesses use OPT in the much the same way that they use the better-known H-1B guest-worker program — to drive down wages of American workers. Since the first OPT expansion, however, the number of participants in that program has surpassed the annual number of H-1B visas issued.

In 2008, a total of 80,000 foreigners — a figure that includes those working in STEM and non-STEM jobs — got permission to enroll in OPT programs. This compares with 109,000 H-1B approvals. By 2016, according to the Pew study, OPT approvals outnumbered new H-1B visas 257,000 to 115,000.

“All are used to block qualified Americans and hire only foreign applicants.”

Donna Conroy, director of Bright Future Jobs, a Chicago-based advocacy organization for American STEM workers, said the companies use H-1B and OPT the same way they exploit other kinds of visas available to foreign students.

“All are used to block qualified Americans and hire only foreign applicants,” she said.

[lz_table title=”Metro Areas with Biggest OPT Gains” source=”Pew Research Center”]Areas with biggest gains in number of OPT participants compared with OPT grads
|Metro Area,Net Increase*
San Jose,48%
San Francisco,23%
*Derived from OPT students remaining; leaving or moving in.

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials announced a pair of initiatives designed to prevent companies from using visa programs to discriminate against Americans.

But Conroy noted that OPT has become more of a threat because the numbers — unlike the H-1B visas — are not capped. She said staffing companies hire large numbers of foreign OPT participants and then farm them out to tech firms all over the country.

Those companies benefit by having long-term temp workers at low wages to whom they do not have to provide benefits.

“There’s a surge in job opportunities in discriminatory staffing agencies that are really labor traffickers,” she said.

Camarota, the Center for Immigration Studies researcher, said immigrants with college degrees are “dramatically less likely” to use welfare programs than their less-educated counterparts. But he added that allowing more foreigners to work in the United States — and, often, convert to legal permanent residency or simply become illegal immigrants after the visas expire — creates a “brain drain” in their home countries while suppressing the salaries of American STEM workers.

“It’s not clear that makes sense from a public policy standpoint,” he said.

Are Foreign-Born Grads More Talented?
Supporters of more foreign workers often argue that the statistics showing a large oversupply of STEM graduates, compared to the number of STEM jobs, are misleading.

This argument revolves around the notion that not all STEM graduates are equal. Companies, they say, need more recent graduates because they have more relevant skills and knowledge than older STEM workers, whose knowledge and skills are out of date in an industry that changes so rapidly.

[lz_table title=”Top Countries Sending OPT Students 2004-2016″ source=”Pew Research Center”]Countries with largest number of OPT participants
South Korea,19K

They contend that younger workers — including those born in foreign countries — are more likely to possess the skills that businesses actually need.

Matloff, the UC Davis professor, said the argument sounds compelling. In pointing to a flaw in that reasoning, however, he asks who has taught recent STEM grads the supposedly cutting-edge knowledge they possess.

“It’s old guys like me,” he said.

If foreign-born STEM workers were bringing better or more relevant skills to their employers, expanding the numbers through programs like OPT might be defensible. But Matloff said evidence of that is hard to come by.

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A 2013 study that he did for the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found foreign-born STEM graduates were slightly less talented than their American counterparts on measures such as the number of patents awarded and the share of American- and foreign-born STEM graduates working in research and development.

Matloff said a confluence of special interests has aggressively pushed OPT and other programs to jack up foreign students studying in the United States. He said businesses like it because it increases the pool of available labor. Immigration lawyers have an obvious interest as well, he said.

Matloff added that colleges themselves have grown increasingly reliant on foreign students, who are more likely to pay full tuition.

The Pew study bolsters that contention. It notes that foreign student enrollment at American universities shot up 104 percent from 2008 to 2016, far outpacing the overall 3.4 percent growth during that period. The foreign student increase was greatest at public institutions, which faced steep budget cuts from cash-strapped state governments following the 2008 recession, according to Pew.

“You’ve got a lot of people with vested interests here,” Matloff said.

Conroy, of Bright Future Jobs, said the idea of a STEM worker shortage is fiction.

“You’re going to know there’s a shortage when there’s actual hiring [of American STEM graduates who are not working in their fields],” she said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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