The Role of Foreign Workers in the STEM Economy

Employment based immigration has received renewed attention under the Trump administration. Critics of U.S. immigration policy have long contended that extending employment opportunities to foreign nationals takes jobs from American workers. Proponents of employment-based immigration point out that having access to highly skilled workers from around the world generates economic innovation and activity that creates more jobs for American workers and is therefore a benefit to the U.S. economy and its workforce. That counterbalancing factor is particularly present in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, where foreign workers constitute 25% of the workforce.

According to a study by the Brookings Institute, the STEM economy is the fastest growing sector of the economy, with STEM jobs now accounting for 20% of all jobs in the U.S., and outperforms other areas of the economy across a range of economic indicators, including job growth, employment rates, wages, patenting, and exports. The American Immigration Council reports that much of the growth of the STEM economy is the result of innovations contributed by foreign STEM workers, whose skills more often complement those of their US coworkers rather than compete with them. The presence of foreign born professionals thus increases productivity, business revenue, and therefore job creation and wages. A study by the American Enterprise Institute study found that, for every 100 foreign-born workers working in STEM fields, the economy added 262 jobs for U.S. born workers.

Foreign-born STEM workers also play a crucial role in fields where growing demand for services outpaces the supply of U.S. workers. The most notable example is the healthcare field, where meeting the needs of an aging Baby Boomer population is straining the nation’s healthcare resources. 29.4% of the physicians and surgeons in the U.S. are foreign born, as are 16.9% of registered nurses.

While it may seem intuitive that fewer jobs going to foreign workers would mean more jobs to American workers, the reality is more nuanced and a restrictive policy towards employment-based immigration, particularly in regards to the STEM professions, would have far-reaching, negative consequences for the economy.

Map with North America depicted in white, with the most populated cities represented as small black dots, with darker shades indicating higher population density

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