No shortage? New STEM data could derail entrepreneurs’ push for immigration changes

New research on the labor market for science and technology graduates poses a threat to the lobbying efforts of business owners and entrepreneurs, many of whom want Congress to let more highly skilled workers into the United States.

One of their main arguments is that the country is not producing enough native-born workers in STEM fields — referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to keep pace with surging demand from the private sector. Congress should therefore ease immigration restrictions, they argue, in order to help new and expanding businesses fill the void with foreign workers.

However, a growing collection of research paints a starkly different picture of the STEM landscape in the U.S. The latest study comes from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, which this week published a report suggesting the skills gap is a myth.

An excerpt from our earlier story by Jia Lynn Yang:

The EPI study found that the United States has ‘more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations.’ Basic dynamics of supply and demand would dictate that if there were a domestic labor shortage, wages should have risen. Instead, researchers found, they’ve been flat, with many Americans holding STEM degrees unable to enter the field and a sharply higher share of foreign workers taking jobs in the information technology industry.

The study showed that only half of students graduating in STEM fields from U.S. universities find jobs in their respective fields of expertise. In one instance, nearly a third of computer science graduates who did not enter the industry said jobs were not available — echoing complaints from many American graduates that a flood of foreign workers has crippled their job prospects after college.

It’s not the first study to suggest that the widely cited “STEM shortage” is at least overstated, if not completely non-existent. Six months ago, the Boston Consulting Group released a report showing that the country had a minor skills shortage in some fields, but nothing significant enough to support an immigration overhaul.

The findings bode poorly for many in the private sector, as technology executives and entrepreneurs have led a campaign to expand the country’s H-1B program, which offers a temporary work visa to highly skilled foreigners, often those in STEM fields. A Senate immigration bill includes many of their proposed changes; in particular, it would raise the annual cap on H-1Bs from 65,000 to as high as 180,000.

Related: Nine nations competing head-to-head for the world’s talent

Several proponents of that change testified during a congressional hearing before the House Small Business Committee on Thursday. John Tyler, general counsel for the Kauffman Foundation, an entrepreneurship research group, warned that the number of native-born STEM graduates has fallen in recent years and urged lawmakers to take steps to help business owners fill the void.

The U.S. immigration system, he said, “does not give enough consideration or support to economic priorities and opportunities that immigrants provide — the STEM workforce is particularly at risk of being neglected.”

One employee of a small, family-owned manufacturer said his firm currently has “a hard time finding people” with even the most basic skills it’s looking for in job applicants.

“Our company wants access to the world’s best and brightest, period, and thousands of small and medium-sized businesses are in the same boat,” Ryan Costella, director of strategic initiatives at Click Bond in Carson, City, Nev., said during the hearing. “Rather than educate the world’s best in our universities and then send them home to eventually sit across from us at the negotiating table, let’s make it easier for them to stay here in our great country and sit on our side of the table.”

In shooting down the notion that adding more H-1B workers take jobs away from qualified Americans, business leaders have pointed to consistently low unemployment rates in science and technology occupations. In 2011, the unemployment rate for STEM graduates was 4.3 percent, well below the national rate, which hovered around 9 percent that year.

But according to Ross Eisenbery, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, that is “a bogus argument.”

“If you have a college degree in engineering, and you can’t find a job in engineering, you’re not going to be unemployed,” Eisenbery said, noting that being employed doesn’t necessarily mean graduates are using their training or earning the type of salaries historically associated with their degrees. “There are lots of other things you can do for work, and you will do them—you aren’t just going to sit at home on the couch.”

Do you think the country needs more STEM workers / H-1B visas? Share your take in the comments below.

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J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he manages the Post's On Small Business blog.
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