Trump’s self-imposed brain drain: why immigration bans do not “free up jobs”

By Harriet Habergham

It’s an innate sense of self-preservation that makes it easier for humans to blame others rather than themselves when things go awry. Whilst this may assuage temporary feelings of embarrassment, in the long run it changes nothing. Whatever caused the problem remains unchanged.

Time and time again, this has been the case with politicians and immigration. When economies fail, governments collapse or living standards fall, blame falls on those whose fault lies mainly in seeking a better life for themselves.

Bypassing the problem

When Trump announced a continued ban on green cards and a suspension of temporary work visas (including H – 1B visas, which are used largely by the major tech firms in the US such as Apple and Google), the naivety was astonishing. The purpose of this ban is to “free up” 525,000 jobs for Americans.

In times of uncertainty and mass unemployment, perhaps this is what people want to hear, particularly amongst Trump voters. However, rather than flood the US with previously unavailable jobs and renewed prosperity, it could instead act as a self-imposed brain drain.

Trump’s concept is based upon a simplistic assumption that America has the brain power and skillset ready to fill these jobs with no forewarning. In 2018, the World Economic Forum reported that the US produced only 568,000 STEM graduates compared to China’s 4.7 million. In cyber and AI, American students make up only 21% of graduates from US colleges.

Why immigration (and H – 1B) matters

Immigration is essential to build up “human capital”. Innovation and technological change are driven by new ideas. We can see this empirically as the National Foundation for American Policy found that more than half of the start-up companies worth more than $1 billion had at least one “immigrant founder”. Notable names include Elon Musk of SpaceX fame and the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, who both used H-1B visas to succeed in the US.

The ripple effect of the loss of these immigrant workers will have a far reaching and damaging effect on the economy. New American Economy state that for every H-1B visa issued, 1.83 new jobs are generated, meaning that a one-year freeze of H-1B visas would result in 155,550 jobs being lost.

Perhaps in a manufacturing economy driven by unskilled labour, this scheme would work. But in our digital age talent and innovation is all and it cannot be fabricated out of thin air. The link between diversity and profitability has been demonstrated continuously, not just through the tech sector but the economy as a whole.

The trouble is not that there are too many immigrants coming and “taking” tech jobs from citizens, but that the talent is not there. At any one time in the US, there are 250,000 computer science jobs available, equating to 5 jobs open for every software developer looking for work. 

If Trump wants the American economy to be driven by American minds he will have to invest in the American people, rather than stifle outside voices. Education reform, investment and initiatives to encourage students to engage in years of study (which currently comes hand in hand with excessive debt) would all help these 525,000 get the jobs supposedly created by banning immigration.

Limiting the field further?

Furthermore, as a sector dominated by men (80% of software engineers in 2019 were male), before limiting the field of recruitment, the government might consider diversification first. Programmes such as Girls Who Code are playing an important role in opening up the field to women. However, it is not enough. Women are chronically underrepresented in what is perceived to be an exclusive industry.

Only 11% of tech leaders are women, creating an inherent bias towards male employment within the sector. A study by Mckinsey and Co. found a direct correlation between gender diversity and the profitability of companies. Therefore, it is counterproductive to limit the talent pool and simultaneously ignore opportunities for development within the US itself.

Invest in progress

Trump might be better advised to draw the answers from history. Back in the days of the space race in the 1960s, when America was limping behind Russia in terms of innovation, congress launched the National Defense Education Act. This act increased funding for STEM programmes and increased scholarships aimed at educating the next generation of innovators. Such a scheme could be implemented to encourage those currently underrepresented in the industry, such as women and BAME groups to drive American citizens to compete for those jobs normally awarded to H-1B visa holders.

The only way to drive an economy is through competition and innovation. Limiting the range of human capital will not protect American jobs but threaten them. The answer is investment, not isolation.

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