Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

America's New Brain Drain: The Loss of the Sea Turtles

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

America's New Brain Drain: The Loss of the Sea Turtles

Article excerpt

The Chinese call them "sea turtles"--scientists and engineers who obtain doctorates, postgraduate experience, and even jobs in the West and then return to their homeland to take up key roles in the technology economy. While China is not alone in persuading qualified citizens to return home--Indians are increasingly following the sea turtles' example--the Middle Kingdom has approached the issue most aggressively. A government "talent development" program started in 2010 offers bonuses of up to $150,000 to returnees qualified in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

China's gain is the West's loss; the drain has been particularly felt in the United States. Over the decades, the United States has benefited hugely from overseas science students choosing to stay in U.S. universities or corporations once they complete their training. International students account for about two-thirds of engineering PhDs awarded by American universities and a high proportion of doctorates in the sciences. So the increasing flow of sea turtles threatens to produce a significant gap in American innovation.

A recent report by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Partnership for New York City, Not Coming to America: Why the U.S. is Falling Behind in the Global Race for Talent, spells out the problem. "In recent years," it states, "U.S. immigration laws have failed to keep pace with the country's changing economic needs. Artificially low limits on the number of visas and serious bureaucratic obstacles prevent employers from hiring the people they need--and drive entrepreneurs to other countries, who are quick to welcome them. In fact, other nations have witnessed the importance of immigrants to the American economy and are employing aggressive recruitment strategies to attract the key high- and low-skilled workers their economies need to compete and grow."

Several metrics indicate the extent of the problem. The growth rate of native-born American students majoring in STEM fields, the report notes, is the slowest of any academic category. Meanwhile, about 60 percent of foreign graduate students in the country were enrolled in science and engineering fields in 2010, And immigrants were responsible for 28 percent of new U.S. businesses in 2011. So the increasing tendency of the foreign graduates to return home, the report states, translates into a projected shortfall of 230,000 workers with advanced STEM degrees by 2018.

The report identifies three major risks facing the U.S. economy if it does not reform its immigration laws: a shortage of workers in innovation industries, a shortage of young workers, and slow rates of business startups and hence a lower rate of job creation. "We heard from a lot of our member companies that we really hit the nail on the head," says Merrill Pond, senior vice president for research and policy at the Partnership for New York City. Pond emphasizes that the issue goes beyond large urban regions such as New York City and Silicon Valley and affects more than the high-technology sector. "It's a national problem," she says. "And because technology is playing an increased role in the day-today operations of the retail, manufacturing, and financial industries, all need technology-trained workers."

Illustrating the competitive nature of the hunt for trained employees, the report highlights strategies that other countries are using to persuade their nationals to return home and to attract foreign entrepreneurs and STEM-qualified workers. Those strategies include providing for a high percentage of visas based on economic criteria; establishing new visa categories to attract entrepreneurs and investors; attracting their own sea turtles with offers of bonuses, free housing, and tax incentives; offering fast-track permanent visas to immigrants with advanced degrees, especially in STEM fields; and allowing local regions to tailor immigration programs to their specific needs. …

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