End the STEM Lockout!

Andy Halataei photo

This week the National Hockey League (NHL) canceled all preseason games through September 30 due to its player lockout labor dispute.  NHL staff are being asked to take pay cuts and fewer work days as a result of decreased league revenue from the lockout.  With the potential threat of a reduced or perhaps even canceled hockey season, Washington Capital’s star Alexander Ovechkin has decided to play overseas in his native Russia in the Kontinental Hockey League.

There are two seemingly obvious obersevations from the NHL lockout.  One, no hockey fan thinks that locking out players is good for the sport, and two, no economist could argue that the U.S. economy is better off when its league’s star players are playing in and helping to sell tickets for competing leagues overseas.

It is not without irony that the NHL lockout comes at the same time members of Congress failed to come to agreement yesterday on a lockout of its own involving top talent in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). For the longest time in Washington, the illogic that its own policies could effectively drive talent to overseas competition had not been fully appreciated in our own high-skill immigration system, but that is what’s happening with our best and brightest foreign-born STEM students here in the US.  They are effectively being locked out of advancement and opportunity in the U.S. and are increasingly deciding it is better to go overseas to work for those competing against us.

Unfortunately, Congress failed at a chance to end its own lockout yesterday, failing to secure the necessary 2/3rds majority to pass legislation to expand the annual visa pool for foreign-born STEM students by 50,000 permanent resident visas, or “green cards.” Experts estimate that this legislation could create at least 131,000 American jobs and resulted in innovative new patents and products to be developed right here in the U.S.

While yesterday’s vote is disappointing, the good news is that now more than ever lawmakers understand that our economy will certainly benefit if we end the STEM lockout, and actively pursue policies that keep our best and brightest here in the US.  During the debate on the legislation, members of the House of Representatives recognized that value of high-skill immigration to our economic fortune.  Foreign-born professionals helped to create a quarter of all high-tech startups from 1995 to 2005 and are responsible for a quarter of global patents filed in the U.S. Technology companies hire on average five to seven additional workers for every high-skilled immigrant hired in the U.S. In short, STEM graduates are job multipliers.

At the same time, the competition for top-flight talent is enormous, as countries create incentives to attract the minds that they know are necessary to spark long-term economic strength.  U.S. competitors like China, Australia, Britain, and Canada have revamped their immigration programs to take advantage of the U.S. STEM lockout, and attract these sharp minds to their shores.  

 The inability of the House to secure the votes needed to pass legislation to end the STEM lockout ultimately was not because of a lack of agreement on the STEM lockout itself.  There already is common, bipartisan ground on expanding the green card pool targeted at STEM professionals.  In addition to the legislation considered yesterday, which was championed by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Tex, similar bills have been introduced by Senate Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Immigration Subcommittee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.  This idea also is included in so-called “Startup” legislation being pursued by a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate members. 

So, just like the NHL, there is general agreement that a STEM lockout is not good for our economy, and helps the competition. Members of both parties in the House and Senate are committed to reversing our nation’s innovation brain drain.  The debate on the contributions of STEM students to our economy is all but settled.  And just like the NHL, the challenge and the task at hand is to look past yesterday’s vote, and bring the parties together and agree on the myriad of issues, most of which have nothing to do with high-skill immigration reform, and reach consensus on a path forward and an end to the STEM lockout.

So whether it’s a hockey player, software engineer or a venture capitalist with a great idea – we all win when we keep the best and brightest here at home.  Now is the time for a bipartisan solution to keep STEM job creators here in America, and the tech industry is ready to help. 

And, oh yes, we hockey fans in the tech industry believe it is time to end that lockout as well.

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