Report Shows International Students Filling State’s STEM Talent Gap

Those of us who have always imagined America to be a place that welcomes immigrants and refugees as a matter of principle have mostly watched in horror as this election season has unfolded. Amid talk of “a big, beautiful wall” between Mexico and the United States, a ban on Muslims entering the country, and dog-whistling that grows louder and more disruptive with each passing week, immigration has become an increasingly fraught issue.

Many Americans feel economically disenfranchised and are looking for someone or something to blame. “Immigrants are stealing our jobs!” cries the candidate in search of a convenient scapegoat in order to score cheap political points.

But, at least in Michigan, the data tells a different, more optimistic story.  On Tuesday, the Global Talent Retention Initiative (GTRI) will release a report called “Filling the Talent Gap” that examines the impact international students have on Michigan’s economic and business climate, and to what degree they drive technological innovation in our country.

According to the report, which updates GTRI’s 2013 data on international student retention, the number of international students (ninth in the nation at 32,000) studying in Michigan grew 32.2 percent over the past five years. The economic contribution they make in the form of tuition, rents, and other purchases of Michigan goods and services is now estimated to exceed $1 billion annually.

Nationwide, between 40 and 70 percent of all graduate students studying in STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) are international students, and according to research from the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy. What’s more, each foreign-born STEM worker with an advanced U.S. degree creates an additional 2.62 American jobs.

Although the data in the new GTRI report isn’t a full picture—it analyzes numbers from seven Southeast Michigan universities and only looks at those students making use of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) portion of international visas—it does show how integral the state’s international students are to filling talent shortages and generating economic growth.

“It doesn’t capture on a one-to-one basis where students go, but it’s something we can monitor in terms of trend lines,” said Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, a nonprofit that oversees the GTRI. In the 2013 report, he explained, only five semesters of data were available. The new report, however, contains stats from the seven participating universities—Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Wayne State University, University of Michigan-Dearborn, Eastern Michigan University, Lawrence Technological University, and Oakland University—as well as national data on the impact of international students, making the report a first-of-its-kind analysis.

Tobocman feels the most compelling data points in the report are the proportion of workers on student visas that are STEM graduates, and the 80 percent increase in the number of international students on OPT hired by Michigan companies in the past four years.

“We’ve known for a long time that international students are more likely to be in STEM, but we didn’t know the extent of penetration,” Tobocman said. “And I’m told anecdotally, by someone who worked on the seminal Brookings Institution study from about a year ago, that Michigan’s numbers go way beyond the national numbers.”

Michigan companies, he added, have gotten to the point where their talent needs are significant, leading to greater interest in employing international students. According to the report, international students are choosing to stay in Michigan at almost the same rate as in-state students—and three times the rate of out-of-state students. About 75 percent of international students who do stay settle in Southeast Michigan, Tobocman said, with Troy being the top destination, followed by Detroit.

“Michigan does seem to be a leader in retaining talent,” Tobocman said. “We’re seeing international students hired for hard-to-fill positions at an increasing rate. There’s still a lot of talent we could be taking advantage of, but the report proves this is a viable path to labor.”

Identifying exceptional international students with the background necessary to work in STEM fields, Tobocman said, is the easy part.

“The biggest challenge has been breaking down hiring barriers,” he noted. “Wherever we go, STEM companies talk about the talent gap. Yet despite the data, they’re still resistant to hiring international students. But employers have a choice. Until we produce more domestic STEM grads, they can leave positions unfilled or they can hire international students through on-ramps like H1B visas.”

Many human resources departments in Michigan are conservative and averse to risk, Tobocman said, but including international students as one element of a hiring strategy can reap rewards.

“The companies hiring international students seem to be fast-growing and at the cutting edge of their fields,” he pointed out. “Global Detroit is focused on immigration as an economic development strategy writ large. In no way are we suggesting replacing American workers with international workers. Mostly, we’re talking about unfilled STEM positions.”

Despite the nasty tone reflected in the U.S. presidential campaign, Tobocman remains optimistic about the American capacity for being open to international students.

“Day-to-day, I don’t think most Americans are gripped by anything like the national narrative,” he added. “There’s a certain degree of Islamophobia, but we’re much more familiar with the Middle Eastern community in Michigan.”

Although he hopes the public discourse evolves from slogans to something more thoughtful, he sees the Trumpian obsession with the Immigrant Other to be, if not positive, at least productive.

“I truly believe that by getting our irrational fears on the table, it’s a way to resolve them. So when Trump says XYZ, it highlights the irrationality of his arguments. If you ask economists, they’re pretty united on increasing the number of H1B visas as a way of boosting the economy. The regions that do well recruiting that kind of labor have high-growth economies. The problem is our federal policy is stuck in gridlock based on irrational fears.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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