This month marks the 70th anniversary of the death of one of the greatest innovators in American history. His patents and inventions laid the groundwork for the wireless communications systems that connect us today, the electric current powering the computer on which you’re likely reading this story, and the transistor that makes computing possible in the first place. He pioneered radar, hydroelectric power plants, remote control, X-ray, and more.
Only he wasn’t American. His name was Nikola Tesla, and he was Serbian. Tesla, who did most of his breakthrough work after immigrating to the United States, died in New York City on January 7, 1943.
From Tesla to Einstein to Google’s Sergey Brin, many of the most influential, job-creating technologists in our country were born in other countries. Our great cities like Washington, New York and Boston were built by immigrants; our diversity makes us creative and cosmopolitan.
But today’s technology innovators face a crisis: we can’t continue to create the Googles and LinkedIns and Squares at the pace we need to lead the developed world. Why? Because software engineers are scarce, and we’re not always able to bring them to America.
Ask any business owner in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, or other derivatively named tech hub, and nine times out of 10 he or she will say, “We’re looking for developers.”
“There is hardly a business model in our economy that has not been touched, improved, enhanced or impacted in a profound way in the last two decades by information technology,” says Christopher McGarry of Columbia University’s Engineering department (speaking on his own behalf, not for the university).
Though unemployment is still a concern in many U.S. industries, software development has more jobs to go around than there are qualified applicants to fill them. Companies shell out more for entry-level programmers than ever before, and enterpreneurs have — predictably — founded education companies, academies, and online courses in desperation to train more.
There are, however, enough talented programmers out there to fix the U.S. tech job deficit. But many of them live in Asia and Eastern Europe.
“There is no doubt that if immigration laws were relaxed we would hire more people in the USA,” says James Green, CEO of search retargeting start-up Magnetic. “We would bring them into the country.” Instead, his firm has an engineering team in Slovakia due to the talent shortage here.
Countries like Ukraine and Romania churn out university graduates in computer science with efficiency, and many of those graduates end up working as faceless outsourcers to U.S. companies. Meanwhile, Estonian schools will reportedly soon start teaching computer programming skills to children as early as age seven.
American companies are hiring foreign programmers as fast as they can find workarounds, but it’s not enough. The H1-B visa program, which allows non-immigrants to temporarily work for domestic companies, only lets workers stay for three to six years, and is capped by congress at 65,000 visas per year. Because the legal process of obtaining a green card to stay in the U.S. is so backlogged, H1-B workers are sent back home at the same rate they arrive, often taking their savings and expertise with them.
Currently, in the international waters off the coast of San Francisco, some ambitious entrepreneurs are planning to anchor an island-sized ship called Blueseed, on which U.S. companies can house international programmers without a visa. More than 1,000 entrepreneurs have expressed interest in living on the ship, according to Blueseed.
But as fun as a floating island sounds, it’s not the long-term solution to the problem.
“We need to make it easier to bring great talent to the U.S. in areas where we’re lacking for resources,” says Nick Ganju, CTO of ZocDoc, a web company that helps patients around the country book doctor appointments online. ZocDoc employs dozens of developers and has created more than 350 jobs since its launch five years ago. Still, ZocDoc’s management team wishes it could import more engineers to accelerate its growth.
Tech companies are ready and willing to pay for talent to come to them. “I don’t care where people come from. I only care that they’re great,” says HowAboutWe.com Co-Founder Aaron Schildkrout, who employs 40 people at his online dating start-up.
“Until our education system and population catches up to the demand for great software engineers, we’ll need to fuel economic growth by making it easier for talented engineers to relocate to the US,” Ganju says.
Universities are scrambling to meet the demand, but two issues stifle the effort in the short term: it takes years of post-graduation experience for programmers to become proficient enough to move the needle for many innovative tech companies, and the most qualified applicants are often foreign and must return home after student visas expire.
“Most of our graduate students and about 20 percent of our undergraduates were born outside the U.S.,” McGarry says. “We need to keep graduates with advanced STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] degrees here in the U.S. if we are to continue to be a world-class innovator of new technologies and new businesses.”
When the White House picks its next fight with Congress, it would do well to address the talent import blockade that’s muffling technological and economic growth. Much of the talent we need already comes here for school; we just need to keep it here.
By bringing in high-tech talent from abroad, we won’t be taking jobs away from Americans; we’ll be fueling innovation that can create more domestic jobs. Let’s fix immigration for the future-creators who’ve powered American business since Tesla turned our lights on.
Shane Snow is the co-founder of Contently, a New York-based start-up that builds tools for freelance journalists and quality publishers, and a technology journalist and contributor to WIRED and Fast Company. Snow is also a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an organization comprised of promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.