Will BRAIN Act create or drain American jobs?

Published: Friday, Jan. 13 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

"We have some of the best universities in the world for science and technology," said Keith Grzelak, vice president of government relations for IEEE-USA, which supports the career and public policy interests of 210,000 engineering, computing and technology professionals. "We should be taking advantage of that. We should be stealing that brain power and Americanizing them."

In the tech industry, workforce and marketplace competition are global, he said. And there aren't a set number of jobs.

"If you skim the world's gene pool and bring the brightest people here, the total number of jobs might grow," he said. "Someone who is highly prolific might found a company that employs 2,000 engineers."

From 2000 to 2007, the addition of 100 foreign-born workers to America's science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) industries resulted in 262 new jobs for U.S. natives, according to a report released last month by the American Enterprise Institute.

Bringing in highly skilled immigrants creates jobs because they fill gaps in the labor market, said Madeline Zavodyny, author of the study and a professor of economics at Agnes Scott College in Georgia. During the past decade, jobs in science and engineering grew three times faster than the rest of the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Despite economic turmoil, a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute found 25 percent of firms report having difficulty hiring.

Hiring people to fill these jobs sparks a chain reaction of job growth, Zavodyny said. If there's an engineer to design a product, companies will also need to hire sales people to sell the product, secretaries to push the paperwork and managers to oversee the business side of things.

"Immigration really is a boon to the STEM fields," she said. "And the STEM fields really are the future of our economy."

Within six months (immigration issues aside), Banaei and his professor hope to hire two people to help them hammer the kinks out of their invention, he said. Already, the fabric is as flexible as a piece of paper, but it could be softer. They hope to increase power generation and tweak the technology so they can offer a variety of different colors.

"I want it to be fashionable," he said.

Within a year they expect to hire a few more people to manage the business and marketing side of the endeavor. If the product is received well, theyll keep on hiring.

"We have limited fuel resources and there is a real need for renewable sources of energy," he said. "I can't predict the future, but I am really excited because I think I've come up with a good solution."

Jobs for Americans

Some argue, though, the job growth observed by the American Enterprise Institute can not be attributed to immigration.

Norm Matloff, a computer science professor at the University of California Davis, called the study a "perfect example of the fallacy of false correlation."

"If there is a job-creation effect, it comes from the job, not the worker," he said. "We'd get the same effect by filling such jobs with a qualified American ... and, yes, as has been shown many times, qualified Americans do exist."

While unemployment among more established scientists and engineers is low, among recent college graduates, 14 percent don't have jobs, according to a report published last month by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. Within two years of graduating, 65 percent of science and engineering graduates are either employed in or training for a career in another field.

Increasing high-skilled immigration, as the BRAIN Act proposes, would hold down salaries and discourage Americans from entering STEM fields, Matloff said. A recent study from Georgetown University found engineering has the lowest wage growth of any major profession — a fact Matloff attributes to increasing numbers of immigrant workers.

"Staple a green card to their diplomas" bills like the BRAIN Act are a "disaster," he said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank that advocates for lower immigration levels, said the type of brilliant immigrants who create high numbers of American jobs, don't have trouble getting green cards.

"We're not talking about Einsteins here," he said. "The question really boils down to, should getting a master's degree earn you a green card? I say absolutely not. Immigration to the U.S. is something we should reserve for special talents, for people who are remarkable in their fields."

The current immigration system accomplishes that, he said. Employment-based green cards are passed out in tiers. Of those available to high priority workers — those who exhibit extraordinary abilities — about 10,000 go unused every year. It's at the next tier down, which includes people who hold advanced college degrees, that things get backed up.

It remains to be seen whether Banaei's invention will qualify him as a priority worker or he will have to get in line behind thousands of other Ph.D. graduates.

He is watching the debate with bated breath.

"Ideally, I would like to see my product go to market in the U.S.," he said. "I'm hoping we can find a way to do that."

Email: estuart@desnews.com

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