Give Us Your Credentialed, Your Skilled Masses: The Ticker

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By Max Berley

Q: How can the U.S. create jobs? A: By granting more visas to highly skilled workers from other countries.

It's counterintuitive, for sure, but some very smart people believe it will work. In fact, this proposal was enthusiastically endorsed by five CEOs of major corporations and seven presidents of elite universities who gathered yesterday to brainstorm at a meeting that was sponsored by Harvard University and the Business Roundtable and hosted by Bloomberg News.

Their idea is to ensure that foreign students, once they receive a graduate degree from an American university, aren't forced by restrictive immigration laws to take their skills and knowledge elsewhere, bolstering America's foreign competitors. Keeping them here, the thinking goes, would set off a virtuous cycle in which stronger U.S. companies would produce faster growth in the economy, which, in turn, would create jobs for Americans.

John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University, pointed out that more than 50 percent of the Ph.D.s in engineering and 38 percent of the Ph.D.s in the physical sciences in the U.S. were awarded to people who aren't citizens. "We spend between a quarter and a half a million dollars per student to educate somebody at the level of a Ph.D.," he said. "And then you want to send them out after we've made this investment?"

One immediate fix for this growth-impairing brain drain would be an increase in the number of U.S. visas for these skilled workers. The university presidents and executives even thought of a way to make this happen and to circumvent the paralyzing and contentious debate surrounding immigration in Congress and on the campaign trail. They suggested decoupling the issue of the highly skilled immigrants from the broader issue of comprehensive immigration reform.

“An innovative solution is that we take these really talented graduate students that we have that we’re granting Ph.D.s to and we staple that green card right to that Ph.D.,” said Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa. “And we stop messing around and really diverting talent from the United States back to other places.”

Representative Eric Cantor, the House Republican leader, and John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s science adviser, were both on hand to listen. They agreed it was a good idea, though neither promised immediate action.

(Max Berley is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

-0- Oct/06/2011 15:23 GMT