Michigan’s most sought-after industries are locked in a global “war for talent” for skilled workers with graduate degrees.
Companies trying to lure workers away from Silicon Valley compete with immigrants and international students. Heads of state and business leaders are investing to train Michigan’s next generation of students, but recruiting highly skilled foreign workers is seen as the best way to meet immediate demand.
“There’s an instinct to ‘well, what do we do with ours? why are these opportunities not for children born in michigan? Said Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, a regional economic development strategy focused on employing immigrants and international students.
“There is no doubt that this is a public policy priority. We should be thinking about expanding STEM education and increasing the number of Michigan students moving into these critical areas, but we can’t wait for a lot of kids entering kindergarten to complete graduate school.
Tobocman said the competition for talent has become fiercer due to labor shortages and the rapid growth in production of electric vehicles, smart cars and other markets that require technical knowledge.
Glenn Stevens is Executive Director of MICHauto, an economic development initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber. Stevens said auto executives are focused on two things: the future of electric vehicles and recruiting the high-tech talent needed to make it happen.
Stevens said the Biden administration’s swift reversal of Trump-era immigration policies had been welcomed by business groups. But there is a desire to see more substantial reform, he said, including pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants.
“Over the past four years, the discussion on this topic has been rather tenuous, but the new administration is optimistic that immigration reform would really be something we could all work on together,” Stevens said. “There is no doubt that the focus is on immigration reform and on the talents we will need to move forward.”
The Trump administration froze green cards for new immigrants last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic and made it more difficult to obtain work visas. The former president argued that restricting immigration would preserve Americans’ jobs, but restricting work visas is undermining efforts by Michigan companies to recruit highly skilled workers in fields such as the auto industry, information technology and health care.
Metro Detroit consistently ranks in the top 10 states for migrant workers with H-1B work visas, allowing companies to employ foreign workers in skilled jobs requiring technical expertise. There are a limited number of visas available each year, and although there is bipartisan support to raise the ceiling, political battles have delayed meaningful reform.
“Immigration is designed to be very frustrating”
America’s million international students compete for 65,000 jobs.
The number of H-1B visas issued each year is capped at 65,000, with an additional 20,000 for graduates from US universities.
To apply for an H-1B visa, the applicant must have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent in a “specialty area” which can range from STEM fields to social sciences and business.
A report from the National Foundation for American Policy found that 78% of graduate students in computer science or computer science are international students.
At the top and bottom of the critical STEM line – science, technology, engineering, math – international students make up 40% or more of almost all critical areas.
Michigan Technological University is home to a small pool of this huge pool of future talent. The Upper Peninsula campus has 713 international students this academic year.
Each year, about half of Michigan Tech’s international students participate in the H-1B lottery, said Kellie Raffaelli, director of international programs and services.
“It’s a tough course from the jump,” said Raffaelli. “It’s something that they always manage and the reporting requirements and it can all be intimidating. You add that with the global pandemic and being very far from home, it can certainly be difficult. “
This difficult journey inspired a new career path for Sandra Nehring, who came to America to study political science but discovered a passion for immigration law. Nehring immigrated from Poland to earn his masters degree from the University of Texas at El Paso.
The university granted her a scholarship, but she was on her own for embassy visits, auditions and applications. She became a mentor to friends, helping them meet deadlines, line up supporting documents, and remind them that their photos needed to be updated every six months.
“Immigration is waiting for you to tick the wrong box on the application,” she said.
After graduation, the time began for her immigrant status to shift from student to worker. International students cannot be unemployed for more than 90 days in total during the year in which they apply for a work permit.
Nehring chose to apply for the optional practical training program which allows students to stay in the country for one year to work in their chosen field. STEM students get two years on OPT.
She estimates that she has used 50 days of her unemployment while waiting for her authorization.
“There is never a timeframe where you feel calm, confident and rested with your status,” she said.
While living in limbo, Nehring found stability in Michigan.
During his summer vacation, Nehring worked at a YMCA camp in Fenton, one of 12 camps in the state that participate in the Camp America exchange program. His new friends became his American family during the pandemic and opened their home to him while awaiting his immigration status.
When she was finally cleared to work, it took 160 applications to land a job at a West Bloomfield law firm.
Employers must prove to the federal government that they could not fill the position with an American first. Many job postings clearly state that they do not offer visa sponsorship. Only three employers even invited Nehring for an interview, she said.
“You constantly feel like you’re not good enough,” she said. “You apply and no one calls. It’s just very stressful and I also feel like no one is really preparing you for it. You have to experience this process for yourself.
Benefits of Canada
Immigration attorney Herman Dhade, Nehring’s employer, said America was losing talent because of its complicated immigration process. Dhade practices immigration law in the United States and Canada and claims that international students in America pack their bags to go north when the path to citizenship gets tough.
“They are educated here, and then Canada sucks them in and takes advantage of them,” he said.
The financial drain and processing times associated with visa sponsorship also make it an unappealing option for employers.
At the end of his presidency, Trump added a Department of Labor rule inflating the minimum wage requirement above market value for American workers. At a high wage cost, employers expected more experienced foreign workers and therefore ignored student applicants, Dhade said.
Throughout Trump’s tenure, rejection rates for H-1B petitions rose to double digits, the highest being 28.6% in the first quarters of 2020. Comparatively, the rejection rate in 2015 was 6%, according to the NFAP.
Federal judges have ruled Trump’s policies, such as raising wages, illegal. As the policies were phased out, the NFAP reported that denial ratings stabilized. In the first quarter of 2021, the denial rate is 7.1%.
While immigration lawyers have called the Biden administration more welcome, the new president still allows Homeland Security to limit green cards for various economic factors, such as rising inflation or rising unemployment. It also encourages employers to offer higher wages for highly skilled visas to avoid “unfair competition” with American workers.
Regardless of the political party, Dhade says the federal government’s maze is designed to be difficult.
“Immigration is designed to be very frustrating, incomprehensible and disheartening, unfortunately,” he said.
Michigan could be ‘poster child’ for new visa program
Former Republican Governor Rick Snyder proposed creating 50,000 special visas that required migrant workers to live in Detroit, a city that has bled residents over the past 70 years. Visas would have been granted to highly skilled immigrants with advanced degrees, but the proposal never saw the light of day.
Tobocman, a former state representative for southwest Detroit, said the spirit of Snyder’s proposal lives on in a move to create regional work visas.
The Economic Innovation Group, a national think tank, has endorsed the creation of new visa programs to send skilled immigrants to rural communities experiencing declining populations. The plan tackles the weak growth of the working-age population as smaller generations fail to replace workers reaching retirement age. Kenan Fikri, research director at EIG, said the so-called “heart visa” rests on the shoulders of Snyder’s proposal.
Fikri said increasing the H-1B visa cap is “essential,” but visas for skilled immigrants typically go to large metropolitan areas with large employers, leaving rural communities behind. Small and medium-sized businesses are almost entirely excluded from the competition for skilled visa workers, he said.
It’s no coincidence, Fikri said. Navigating the bureaucratic hurdles of the visa system pushes back rural businesses, but a program dedicated to serving rural areas has the potential to be “politically feasible,” he said.
“We see in Michigan and in the cities of the Rust Belt this story of immigrant-led resurgence in some areas,” he said. “We just want it to happen more and more often. “
Fikri said Michigan could be a “poster child” for the Heartland visa, which aims to inject talent directly into struggling communities. Creating the new visa requires a law from Congress, and Fikri expects a bill can be introduced in the near future.
“The window is now open because the demographic trends are so clear,” Fikri said. “I think the political winds may change here as soon as the scale of the labor shortages resulting from the pandemic is felt.”