Why so many U.S.-educated foreign students don't stay for work – WBUR News

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U.S. universities educate thousands of foreign-born students. They graduate with skills the U.S. needs, and they want to stay here. But many can’t.
So, these students are being poached by foreign countries.
“They’re benefiting from the failures of the U.S. system. We’re just letting this happen. We’re watching it go. We’re watching these people leave,” Jon Marcus says.
And they’re going to countries that have immigration officers specifically tasked with recruiting the students the U.S. has educated.
Why? The U.S. immigration system often requires that international graduates convert from student to work visas, but they can’t if they don’t already have a job offer.
Other countries are doing it differently:
“The government has decided, well, look, these guys are you know, they’re super brainy,” Nicolas Rollason says. “They’ve come from really good universities. What’s the problem with having them here without a job offer in the job market looking for a role here?”
Today, On Point: Why America’s immigration system is forcing out high-skilled workers the U.S. trains and needs.
Jon Marcus, higher education editor and reporter for the Hechinger Report. Author of the article “With new ‘talent visas,’ other countries lure workers trained at U.S. universities.
Nicolas Rollason, partner and head of business immigration for the London-based law firm Kingsley Napley.
Sudeep Datta, a data analyst who got his master’s in the U.S. but had to move to Canada to work legally.
Marc Pavlopoulos, CEO and founder of Syndesus, which helps foreign skilled workers with U.S. jobs secure visas in Canada.
Part I
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Every year, hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world come to the United States to study at American colleges and universities. When they graduate with highly specialized and coveted degrees, many of them want to live and work here. They want to stay here. But only about 23% of foreign students who obtain master’s degrees in the U.S. end up staying.
And for those who get bachelor’s degrees, that number is just 11%. And remember, those numbers are far lower than the number of people who want to stay in the United States. So why is the U.S. training and educating so many people in jobs we so desperately need and then just letting them leave? In the meantime, countries like Canada, the U.K. and Australia are poaching these U.S. trained and educated folks to work in places like London, Toronto and Sydney.
Well, Jon Marcus is a higher education editor and reporter at the Hechinger Report. And he’s reported about this particular brain drain in an article headlined “With new ‘talent visas,’ other countries lure workers trained at U.S. universities.” And Jon joins us here in the studio today. Welcome to On Point, Jon.
JON MARCUS: Thanks very much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI:  Okay. So give me some more specific numbers about how many foreign students we’re talking about at the undergraduate and graduate level.
MARCUS: Well, about a million foreign students come to the United States every year, and we educate them at every level, including at the graduate level. And it’s very hard for them to stay. They can stay after they graduate, through something called an OPT, or optional practical training visa that lets them stay from 12 to 36 months, depending on their major.
Then they have to get an H-1B, which is very, very hard. And an employer sponsor. The result of which is that not all of them, but many of them have skills in areas like computer science and electrical engineering, which are in very high demand in the United States and for which we produce very few domestic graduates, American graduates. And so where we need these students, but we make it really hard for them to stay.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So about those graduate level computer science and electrical engineering degrees, in your article (LAUGHS) you have a fact that just made my eyes pop out. What percentage of folks are foreign-born in those graduate programs?
MARCUS: It is amazing. My eyes popped out, too. 80% of graduate students in computer science and electrical engineering are foreign born. Only one in five students at the graduate level in those fields, in the most important kinds of subjects in a knowledge economy, only one in five of them are American.
And as you’ve seen in the last few weeks, math scores in the K-12 level in America are getting even worse. And so we’re just not producing people that know math. Math is a prerequisite for programs like that. And in some particularly high demand fields like AI, you’ve got half of the workforce in AI, one of the fastest emerging fields. Half of the workforce is foreign born and half of the graduate students in fields that lead to AI are foreign born.
CHAKRABARTI: So we’re going to come back to some of the whys in just a second. But I just want to mention that oftentimes people will say, “Well, part of the reason why there are so many foreign-born graduate students is because of the money factor for the universities.”
We’ll come back to that. And then also, there’s always a question about wages, in terms of who is taking jobs in these very, very hard to fill fields. So I just want to say that we’re going to come back to those in a second. But so tell me a little bit more about these four words, the U.S. immigration system. Like what’s going on there that’s making it so difficult for folks that we keep saying we need to fill jobs, to stay?
MARCUS: Well, it isn’t news that the U.S. immigration system is fairly dysfunctional. We’re speaking here about a very small corner of it, which is immigrants with skills in areas of high demand. And the process for them to be able to stay is very, very difficult. And another really important point to make is that people still want to come to the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: Right.
MARCUS: They want to come to the United States because in tech fields in particular, because the United States offers significant amounts of venture capital, lots of opportunity. And we make it really, really hard for those people to come and stay. We have heard, and your listeners will have heard about a lot of layoffs at big tech companies. But there remain huge numbers of openings for people in those fields, in smaller companies, in the IT department of a non-tech company. So these are still areas where we need talent, and worth and we’re sending it away.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I want to go through an example from a particular person, about exactly what you’re talking about, both the challenges in staying in the United States, after receiving a U.S. degree. And then the options that these folks have, which is what you’ve reported on, Jon. So in 2018, Sudeep Datta moved from India to the United States to get a master’s degree at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He’s a data analyst. And his wife, Suchi Bakshi, was already studying in Tampa.
SUDEEP DATTA: Our plan was like to study and gain knowledge. Because U.S., as you know, the university and the research department are very like, very detailed, very they have a lot of funds, they have a lot of different projects. And after we gain the knowledge, get the degree, and then utilize my knowledge in the work field, because there’s so much opportunity in the U.S., particularly in these niche skills.
CHAKRABARTI: As Sudeep says, they wanted to stay in the United States and work. When his wife Suchi graduated, she applied for an H-1B visa, which allows a person to work in the U.S. for up to six years. But two things must happen first, as Jon Marcus mentioned. An employer must agree to sponsor the applicant, and she has to go through the H-1B visa lottery system, which had, at one time, a one in four chance of picking Suchi’s name.
Okay. So Suchi had three tries at the lottery. On her second try, she got picked in 2019.
Meanwhile her husband Sudeep was still studying. He graduated in that fall and applied for the OPT, or optional practical training visa. That temporary work visa that allows him to work while he entered the H-1B lottery. Having a master’s degree gave him Sudeep advantage, but it was still a lottery.
DATTA: I was like really optimistic. Like, okay, my wife, she got it. I will also get it. I will also get it. Don’t worry. But immigration and things are really like tense, and very like you are not sure what will happen. You will get or you will not get in the lottery system. So, there is no like 100% surety. Right?
And another issue was since we were having, like by that time we were having like 8, 10 years of experience, and me and my wife, we were thinking of planning to start a family, or also we were not able to do that. Because we don’t have that surety. So it was always stress and it was always like uncertainty.
CHAKRABARTI: In April 2020, Sudeep found out he didn’t get picked, so he applied again. His U.S. employer wanted him to stay with the company, but didn’t see many options if he didn’t get the H1-B. His employer didn’t see working from India as a viable option, and neither did Sudeep. Because he and his wife haven’t lived there since 2013. They really liked the U.S. and wanted to stay.
On April 10th 2021 — the lottery for Sudeep’s second attempt at an H-1B visa was drawn.
DATTA: And I remember in my office and the company, the lawyer, they logged in and they checked, and they said, “No, your name is not there.” And we have like a rental apartment, so we don’t know if we get to renew or not. So these are all uncertain things. It was not a good day.
CHAKRABARTI: His wife still had her H-1B visa, so Sudeep could stay in the U.S. with her. But he could not work.
DATTA: Other option is, I have to go back to study, maybe do a Ph.D., I talked with my professors and everyone, but I then rated myself. I am not a Ph.D., I am not a research guy, I am a commercial guy. I work on like business problems and I.T. problems, like that. So I wanted to utilize that part of my experience. So I was not wanting to go back to Ph.D.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So further graduate study was out. And then:
DATTA: Sadly, that time, my wife, she lost her job. (LAUGHS) And her company, they were not doing well, and they laid off a lot of people from their head office. And on H1 you get like 60 days of time to get a new job.
CHAKRABARTI: That 60-day deadline to keep the H-1B includes getting all the paperwork done and processed. So, Suchi applied to dozens of jobs as fast as she could and luckily found one in time. So, she could stay – at least for now.
DATTA: So, we went through those harsh times and that time in the month of April, we thought of, okay, we have to take things on our hand. We have to be controlling. We have to decide, our company, USCIS, all these factors which are not in our hands, in the lottery. So we have to take control and we have to utilize our educations.
CHAKRABARTI: In other words, the uncertainty of the U.S. immigration system had become intolerable. Sudeep and Suchi began looking for options in other countries. They found that Canada has an express visa specifically for people like them – highly educated and who work in tech.
And interestingly, Canada still requires that a Canadian company sponsor the visa, but that was no problem. Sudeep and Suchi easily found a Canadian sponsor. But even more interestingly, the Canadian sponsor didn’t even hire the couple – they just sponsored their visa. So Sudeep and Suchi moved to Canada while still working remotely for their U.S. employers.
In April of 2022 they moved to Toronto.
DATTA: So when we moved, my wife, she was already pregnant. She delivered here. And now we are like certain and we are in a positive mind on weekends that there is no immigration thing that we have to worry about, or any paperwork which is ending, that we have to renew. And do all the papers gathering and submit.
CHAKRABARTI: And then, in December of 2022, just eight months after they moved to Toronto, the Canadian government granted Sudeep and Suchi permanent resident status.
DATTA: And with that, I can switch companies, I can work with these companies and not to rely on employer to file my work authorization, then only they will hire me. So that power gave me back. It’s like a freedom, I would say. (LAUGHS)
CHAKRABARTI: Meaning, Sudeep Datta, his wife Suchi Bakshi, and their son, plan on staying in Canada for the foreseeable future. And Jon Marcus, you’re just nodding your head in disappointment there.
MARCUS: I mean, look at look at that case and listen to the hoops they had to jump through trying to stay in the United States. So what happens, ultimately, is that we’ve educated this couple to go and apply their skills in another country that competes against us.
CHAKRABARTI: And what’s even more interesting and this is why your story was so compelling. When we come back, we’ll talk about it, is that other countries are actively recruiting these folks.
MARCUS: Aggressively recruiting these folks.
CHAKRABARTI: Aggressively recruiting. Okay. So Jon Marcus is with us today. He’s higher education editor for the Hechinger Report, and he’s written a fabulous, fascinating article about why it’s not only so hard for highly educated, foreign-born students in the United States to stay, but how other countries are benefiting from our broken immigration system. We’ll be back. This is On Point.
Part II
CHAKRABARTI: Jon, first of all, I just want to get a little update from you on the likelihood of getting an H-1B visa in this country right now. When we heard Sudeep’s story, at that time, it would put the lottery, it was a one in four chance, but it’s even harder now.
MARCUS: We haven’t raised the maximum number of people who can get an H-1B visa in 30 years. And the result of that is, and this is to the credit of, you know, our economy and the number of people that want to come and work here. So many people applied for an H-1B visa this year that the number who were accepted fell to one in seven.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So it’s even harder now. But that’s because demand is still really high.
MARCUS: Demand is still — people do want to come to the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: But you also just said we haven’t actually raised the number, the cap, in 30 years.
MARCUS: It’s set by Congress, and it hasn’t been raised since the 1980s.
CHAKRABARTI: So it’s not a percentage. It’s an actual number.
MARCUS: It’s an actual number.
CHAKRABARTI: In 30 years. Even though, I mean, as we’ve been talking about, in some of these sectors, the demand for talent is through the roof and they cannot fill jobs.
MARCUS: In the United States. But as we’re going to discuss in a moment, in other countries they’ve recognized this and have adjusted their immigration systems accordingly.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. 30 years. Most of the companies that are looking for people right now in the United States didn’t even exist back then.
MARCUS: We haven’t changed anything about our immigration system, really. Not in 30 years. Nothing major.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. We’ll come back to that. So you’ve written about these new talent visas in different countries. Other countries are seeing an opportunity here. What are their talent visas?
MARCUS: So this is what got us interested in this topic, is that we’ve seen other countries, some of them are equally hostile to immigration, such as the U.K., that have introduced talent, global talent visas to attract precisely the people that they need in tech.
And the other big occupation is in health care. So not only have they introduced these kinds of global talent visas for immigrants in general, but they are going very specifically after graduates of our best universities and colleges. In the U.K., so the countries that are doing this most actively are Australia, Canada and the U.K.
Other countries are doing it, too. Portugal, France and Singapore. But they are little bit less attractive to immigrants in these fields than those other, than we are. And those other three countries. In the U.K., they introduced a visa with a terrible name. It’s called the high potential individual visa.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)
MARCUS: Which sort of makes you wonder what the rest of us are. But the visa allows you to immigrate to the U.K. if you have graduated from 40 of what are considered the best universities in the world. Not surprisingly, 21 of those are in the United States.
And so they’ve made it very easy for graduates of Stanford, and Harvard and MIT to come in and matriculate or sorry, come in, immigrate to the U.K., in Canada, 40,000 graduates. And, you know, you just gave us an example, Sudeep’s example. He’s one of 40,000 graduates of American universities that have immigrated to Canada. Australia, they have a global talent visa. They go to job fairs at universities to recruit international students, foreign-born students to come to Australia.
CHAKRABARTI: They like come here and they go to campuses. They go to, you know, Carnegie Mellon or whatever and just say, “Hey, we know you’re going to have trouble getting an H-1B, come to Sydney?”
MARCUS: They advertise for this. There are billboards in Silicon Valley advertising the express immigration system that you mentioned in Canada. We’ll hear, I think, a little bit more about that later in the program. And yeah, these countries are aggressively recruiting graduates. And kind of happily recruiting, almost with a smile on their faces. I witnessed it when I went to report this in the U.K.
They’re laughing at how they are recruiting these highly skilled immigrants that we’re training, and to a degree subsidizing. So Sudeep went to a public university, even though, as you point out, international students are recruited by universities, in part. Because they pay the full amount. They’re still a public subsidy. And so if they are teaching assistants or doctoral candidates, they’re paid for those jobs and then we let them leave.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. Well, I want to go to London now briefly, where Nicolas Rollason joins us. He’s a partner and head of business immigration for the London-based law firm Kingsley Napley. Nick, welcome to On Point.
NICOLAS ROLLASON: Hi, Meghna. Thanks.
CHAKRABARTI: Are you one of those people who’s laughing at the U.S. immigration system?
ROLLASON: Yeah. I have to say I’m sort of bemused really, at how dysfunctional it seems and how, despite that, people still want to come to the U.S.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Well, I guess there’s some hope for us there at least. But okay, so tell me, what is it that you do for business immigration at Kingsley Napley?
ROLLASON: Yeah, so I run a team of about 40 people, and we act for large corporations, bringing people to work in the U.K. That’s mainly skilled people working in a range of sectors, including financial services, tech, media. The usual suspects. And we assist businesses in getting people sponsored. So they have to get a first-year sponsor license, and then once they have the sponsor license, managing that and making sure they’re compliant. And then getting the visas for the people who want to come over, they want to sponsor to come and work in the U.K.
Okay. Is this under that high potential individual visa that Jon was talking about?
ROLLASON: Yeah. We’ve got, you know, the main workstream in the U.K. for work, employment-based work visas is called the skill worker visa. That’s the vast majority of cases, and that’s through sponsorship, through a company that’s registered as a sponsor, and they can just go onto an online system. They can get what’s called a certificate of sponsorship, which is like an electronic work permit, and they can get that within a day. And then we can apply for a visa for the person, and they can usually be in the U.K. within a few weeks. And that’s for most occupations that are skilled, sort of beyond sort of school leaver age.
So, you know, it goes from, you know, CEOs of companies, all the way down to bar managers, you know. So it’s a pretty broad system. So that’s the main system that people hire foreign talent from. But within that, we also have these other global talent streams, including the high potential individual visa, which is very useful. And we also have another global talent stream which looks to attract the best talent in tech.
So we have a technician visa, specifically geared towards tech talent. Both, you know, technical people who are dealing with the products, and people running sort of tech businesses and founders of tech businesses. And then we have a whole bunch of other super talented global talent visas for people who are actors. So if you’ve won an Oscar, you’re straight in. You know, if you’re a well-respected academic who’s published lots of work, then you’re straight in. It’s a bit like the sort of 0-1 visa you have in the U.S., but it’s not quite as document heavy as the U.S. system.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s not quite a document heavy. Okay. I have to say I’m not sure I heard you correctly, Nick. Because maybe my mind is just so sort of imbued with the thoughts of the U.S. immigration system. Did you say that under certain circumstances, you could apply for a U.K. work visa and be matched to a sponsor within a day? I’m not quite sure I heard that correctly.
ROLLASON: So what happens is that the employer identifies who they want to bring in and it could be somebody who’s already working for them in one of their global offices, or it could be a completely new hire. And they say, “Okay, this is the person we want.” They don’t have to jump through any hoops in terms of showing that, you know, there’s no U.K. person who could do that role. You know, there’s no quotas on these things. You simply go into a system.
And you input, you know, the person’s job description, their salary, you know, the job title, the hours they work. And you submit that on an online system, which you kind of manage yourself. It goes through to the home office and a day later the home office will say, “Okay, that’s fine. That meets all the requirements for sponsorship. You know, the person has paid enough.” They come back to you the next day, you receive an electronic, you know, effectively an electronic work permit. And with that, you can then apply for the person’s visa. And in the U.K., visas are very quick. We can get them, in the U.S., we can get them in 24 hours if we want to pay a high fee.
CHAKRABARTI: You have to still pay for it. Okay, Nick, hang on here for just a second. So Jon, Nick said something really interesting there about how a U.K. employer does not have to prove that there is a British citizen, that there’s no British citizen they can find to fill the particular job that they want the foreign person to fill. That does not exist with the H-1B system here?
MARCUS: I don’t know if that’s a requirement. I can tell you practically that the fact is, and to be honest, in response to this story, not surprisingly, we’ve heard from a lot of people saying, “Why aren’t we hiring Americans?” That we do not have people who are American born who can do these jobs. As we discussed earlier, they’re not going to graduate programs in these fields. We’re not very good at math, apparently, according to recent tests in K-12. And so the fact is that we do not have Americans who can do many of these jobs.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Nick, I’m curious about something else. Because it still sounds, though, that the person coming to the U.K. after, you know, getting their degree from Rice University in the United States still has to have a U.K. employer. Were you going to say no?
ROLLASON: I was going to say no. So the high potential individual that Jon mentioned earlier is one of those ones where you don’t need a sponsor. You can come in. And all those global talent visas I mentioned, you don’t need a sponsor either. And the way we get involved in this high potential individual visa from the U.S. is that at certain time of the year when the lottery results are announced, you know, a lot of people are disappointed, the employers can’t hire them. They’re on their OPT’s, or, you know, whatever stage they’re at in their immigration journey.
And they can’t stay in the U.S. on an H-1B. Because they can’t get into the lottery. And at that stage, if those guys, you know, if they’re graduating from one of those 21 universities that Jon mentioned, they’ve got a free pass straight into the U.K. And we can just get them straight onto a visa. They don’t need sponsorship. They can come and they can be here, and they can be in the U.K. doing what they want to do. In many cases, the U.S. company will have a London office.
You know, it may not already be a sponsor, but if it’s not a sponsor, it’s very easy then for that individual to come and work for the U.S. company, you know, for a certain period of time. And then consider going back to the U.S. at some stage in the future when they meet the requirements to be transferred back under different work categories.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay.
ROLLASON: For visas.
CHAKRABARTI: Jon, I’ll let you jump in here a second, but I just want to read the name of some of the universities that we’re talking about. Nick, that the U.K. has identified in the United States. The University of Washington, the University of Texas at Austin, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, University of Pennsylvania, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A bunch of University of California’s, Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego. Then, of course, we’ve got, you know, the big marquee names, Stanford, Princeton, Northwestern, New York University, MIT, Caltech, etc. Cornell, Columbia. Wow. Jon?
MARCUS: Why don’t we want to keep those graduates? It’s kind of mind blowing.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, the thing is, is that as Nick is describing, I’m not sure I know of a work-based visa in the United States where you do not have to have a sponsor. This is like a long-standing presumption in the United States that we haven’t been able to budge.
MARCUS: You do have to have a sponsor with an H-1B. And the problem with the OPT that you mentioned earlier, is you have graduates of these institutions. Often there’s a delay. It’s hard to find out exactly how long the delay is, but the delay was exacerbated by COVID. You graduate or you’ve applied for an OPT visa. You don’t have it yet. So you have no income. You have expenses, like rent. And Sudeep gave you an example of that. You don’t have insurance, health insurance, once you’ve graduated from college.
Unless you buy it yourself, which is expensive. And so the longer that goes on, the less incentive that we have for people to stay. And so they begin, Nick mentioned, and when I met with him in London, he said, around now, graduation season is when he begins to hear from people who have graduated from American universities, who presumably would have stayed in the United States and are now reaching out or being referred to him to come to the U.K.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, Nick, I want to just take a quick step back here, because obviously Britain has had — and even continues to have — a very contentious domestic view about immigration similar to the United States. I mean, Brexit was one of the things that was fueled by anti-immigration sentiment in the U.K. And yet, at the same time, has there been any pushback against these, like incredibly light speed, fast-tracked visas for highly-trained and qualified workers from elsewhere?
ROLLASON: Well, yeah. I mean, the thing about U.K. opinion on immigration is that it’s very split. So on the one hand, people don’t like people arriving in small boats at the border. Same thing as the U.S., people arriving at the border. And there’s a very negative view on that. But on the skilled migration side, you know, the U.K. public doesn’t really mind. They’re quite happy with having skilled people. And, you know, recent surveys and polls on attitudes to immigration in the U.K. have shown that, you know, repeatedly.
And the U.K. is one of the most open and liberal in terms of views on skilled immigration. It still, you know, is negative on refugees and people arriving in small boats. But you know, so the political context means that the government has quite a lot of flexibility in what it does, and it doesn’t necessarily want to crack down on kind of skilled worker routes. Now, what happened this year is that there was a large surge in what we call net migration, the difference between people arriving and people leaving the U.K., which was 600,000, which is one of the highest figures ever in history.
And that was mainly due to people coming from Ukraine, because of the war. People coming from Hong Kong, because we have a special visa and a big upsurge in skilled work visas since COVID and since the bottlenecks of COVID have been opened. So a lot of people are coming in. But all the government’s done is not close down all these routes.
It’s just actually said, “I tell you what, we’ve got too many dependents of students, so let’s restrict that and they will be doing that next year.” So that’s the only restriction we’re seeing at the moment. But I have to say the U.K. has, at the moment, a very open and liberal skilled migration policy. Which encourages, you know, which is very fast, and it helps to get business the people they need.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Nick Rollason is partner and head of business immigration for the London based law firm Kingsley Napley. Nick, thank you so much for joining us.
ROLLASON: My pleasure.
CHAKRABARTI: Jon Marcus, Nick said something that I think also, from my estimation, is similar here in the United States. That in fact, granting visas to highly skilled workers is an area of immigration policy that publicly in the U.S. has less disagreement than other aspects of immigration.
MARCUS: Yeah, it’s really interesting. And this was explained to me by an immigration expert at Oxford, as basically coming down to this. If you live in a country, and you’re told that there’ll be a special visa for people that are quantum physicists, you don’t care. Because you’re not a quantum physicist. There’s more antipathy to immigration among people who think that there might be someone admitted who can do the same job that that person’s doing at a lower wage.
So, in fact, skilled immigration doesn’t have a lot of pushback in the U.K. I should also mention one important point. The global talent visa, or the tech nation visa that Nick referred to, about 4,600 people have been admitted to the U.K. through that visa. And as you just heard, in just the last year, there are 600,000 net migration, essentially immigrants to the U.K. So as you can see, it’s a very small number, but it’s a symbol. And it’s a signification that, “We’re willing to take you.” And as one of the immigration experts in the United States said to me, “What signal are we sending?”
CHAKRABARTU: Well, Jon Marcus with the Hechinger Report. Stand by for just a moment. When we come back, we’re going to talk more about how other countries are taking advantage of the fact that highly-skilled, highly-educated folks, foreign-born folks who were educated here in the United States are having trouble staying. So. More in a moment. This is On Point.
Part III
CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re joined by Jon Marcus. He’s higher education editor for The Hechinger Report. And he’s written a fascinating article headlined “With new ‘talent visas,’ other countries lure workers trained at U.S. universities.” And Jon, I just wanted to share a quick story that we got from another On Point listener.
This is Siddharth Krishnamoorthy, from Pasadena, California. And he called to tell us about his journey trying to stay in the U.S. long term.
SIDDHARTH KRISHNAMOORTHY: I have been in America for 13 years. I have a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Stanford University, and I’m no longer a student. But I’m still struggling with the immigration system and still waiting for my green card, which has made life pretty difficult, because there’s so much uncertainty.
There are people here who are highly qualified and also work in the national interest, as I think I do, and are actually kept out of America and actively pushed out. And this hurts American interests. But also, at the heart of it is a very human story, where someone’s life is actually severely disrupted. Because having lived here for 13 years, it’s very difficult for me to relocate my entire life and find a whole new life in another place.
CHAKRABARTI: So there we have an aerospace engineering Ph.D. who wants to stay.
MARCUS: From Stanford.
CHAKRABARTI: From Stanford. Exactly. Okay. So again, your article just really opened our eyes in terms of the advantage that other countries are taking with these hurdles that American educated folks are having difficulty clearing here. So, Jon, as you mentioned a little bit earlier, yes, we have seen mass layoffs at Amazon, Meta, Twitter, some of the Silicon Valley giants. But those mass layoffs have really nothing, they’re not going to change the trajectory of the demand for tech workers.
Because actually, you said this earlier, at least half of all new tech jobs are in companies outside of the tech field, because technology is just so important for every company now. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for computer and I.T. jobs will continue to grow by an estimated 15% by 2031. And I just love numbers, Jon, so we’re going to do more here. According to the global consulting firm ManpowerGroup, 80% of employers in I.T. worldwide say they’re struggling to fill jobs.
And again, in the U.S., employers say they cannot find enough Americans with the right qualifications and experience. So that’s an important factor to emphasize. So they’re looking to hire foreign-born workers who were educated in the U.S. But the immigration system is a major hurdle.
Well, that’s where Marc Pavlopoulos comes in. He’s the CEO and founder of Syndesus, a company that keeps U.S. trained and educated international workers at American tech companies by — moving them to Canada.
MARC PAVLOPOULOS: So, my conversation with the company is, “What happens when they go back to home country, which 70% of the time it’s going to be India? And the U.S. company responds, it’s almost always the same. It’s, “Unfortunately, we will have to terminate this worker. With time zone issues, it’s too far away. We will lose this worker. We will lose their expertise. We will lose an important member of the team.”
And that’s always what the U.S. company’s facing. Then you go to the worker, and it’s like their American dream is gone. All the hard work is out the window. They lose the job, they lose the ability to stay in the U.S. They lose everything they’ve built. So you’re talking to two parties who are facing a complete loss.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Marc is an American. His company, Syndesus, is based in Canada. And what he does is he focuses on small to mid-sized companies that don’t have international offices. So, Syndesus sponsors these workers and becomes their de-facto Canadian employer, so that the employees can move to Canada, but work remotely for their U.S. companies.
PAVLOPOULOS: Still your same job, your same title, your same paycheck, your same U.S. boss. We’re just handling your Canadian employment. From then on, we’ll be your legal employer.
CHAKRABARTI: But why Canada? Well, just like we heard with the U.K. before, the biggest reason – speed.
PAVLOPOULOS: I walked him through Canadian immigration. I said, “Look,” I said, “Picture this spreadsheet, A and B. First, we’ll talk about, you weren’t able to get the work visa. In this case, you will get the work visa. It’s 99% of the time awarded. Of course, criminal record and some health issues may keep you out. But if you qualify, you get it based on your merit.” So right away, there’s a shock.
“So here’s how Canada works. Here’s your timeframe to get permanent residence. Compare that to the timeframe to get green card in the U.S.” And the person’s like, “Well, I didn’t even, I can’t even get the H-1B. So obviously green cards on issue.” And I say, “And here’s a timeline of citizenship. It’s about four, four and a half years from when you land.” I’m like, “There’s your progression.”
CHAKRABARTI: Marc is referring to Canada’s Global Talent Stream immigration program. No lottery, merit-based. And most people who apply can get the 3-year visa in a matter of weeks. And if you’re married, your spouse can come and work too.
The worker can apply for permanent residency, which could be granted in six months.
PAVLOPOULOS: When you have your permanent residence, you have the right to work for Canadian companies or remotely for American company like you’re doing now. It’s wide open. Everything is, your possibilities are there.
CHAKRABARTI: So, Marc says it’s a win-win for workers and employers. But:
PAVLOPOULOS: The loser in this scenario is the U.S. economy. Because this person now is a taxpayer in Canada, the IP still coming back to the U.S. company. So you might say like, “Well, the U.S. companies still continue to grow. Your clients are having global access to global talent.” The company maintains their trajectory. But this person now is out of our tax base. If they when they go to start a company, they won’t be in the U.S. They’re going to be in Canada.
CHAKRABARTI: Marc says once in Canada, many workers move from job to job and eventually work for Canadian companies.
Now, from 2017 to 2021 — nearly 40,000 foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities were recruited to Canada. And Marc thinks that number will continue to grow unless the U.S. does something about it.
PAVLOPOULOS: I don’t see anything happening. I don’t see no active debate on this. It’s a toxic issue when it comes to U.S. politics. So if at some point you look at it and say 30-plus years of H-1B program and no reforms, if you don’t think it’s going to change, then the mindset of U.S. companies has to change.
CHAKRABARTI: That was Marc Pavlopoulos, the CEO and founder of Syndesus. Okay, Jon Marcus, tell me, you know, from your reporting, really what you conclude the U.S. loses with its current system?
MARCUS: Well, I want to pick up on something that Marc just said, that he doesn’t see this getting any better. The number of people that are being recruited to Canada and to other countries. I actually see a different problem. And the problem is that international students, foreign-born students will stop coming to U.S. universities. And there are signs that that’s already happening. The immigration numbers are flat or down.
They’ve rebounded a little bit from COVID. But even if you take the pandemic out of the picture, we’ve seen, we used to see steady growth and then things started to plateau even before the pandemic. There are survey data that suggests that international students are less convinced, just frankly, as American students are these days, too, about the value of getting a degree in the United States. Because they are seeing and hearing more about the fact that it will be harder for them to stay.
 CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But there’s differences in the reasons why. Right?
MARCUS: There are huge differences in the reasons why. One reason is it’s very expensive. I think that that reason is the same across the board, domestic and international. But international students came to the United States in part, not all of them, but in part aspiring to stay. And because they know now that that’s very difficult. And that other countries are more welcoming to them. And also because other countries are competing not only in the immigration visa arena, but in recruiting international students.
The United States is no longer the automatic go to. Another problem for us is that our number one sending nation has historically been China. And because of, you know, other issues between the United States and China, those numbers are also going down. That’s a $45 billion a year hit. That is the economic impact of international students on American universities in their communities.
CHAKRABARTI: And their communities. Because they’re paying to go to the universities, and they are in those communities as well.
MARCUS: Yes. Well, we’re sitting in one of the communities where there are a lot of international students, and you only have to look out the window of this building to see a lot of international students who bring wealth to the community, who drive nice cars, who pay the full tuition. And that is a problem for universities, which already have a lot of other problems with their enrollment. Whether international students will still feel that it’s worth their time to come here.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, Jon, you had to make it specific to what we see around us in the greater Boston area, because the flipside to that is every time I see a foreign student, I’m just going to speak my truth here, who’s driving a Maserati on Commonwealth Avenue, right outside the On Point studios, I think to myself, “Well, okay, if that person didn’t come, I understand it would be a financial hit to the university.” But isn’t there a counterargument to, “Well, wouldn’t that then be a spot for an aspiring American student?”
MARCUS: Assuming that there were aspiring American students in enough of a supply that universities were seeing, you know, more applicants. And in fact, enrollment at universities, domestic and international, has been declining now for more than a decade.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you’re saying that there’s not an adequate K-12 pipeline in the U.S. for these undergraduate and graduate spots?
MARCUS: Well, two things are happening. Fewer high school graduates are going directly to college after finishing high school in the following fall. That number is down nationally by seven percentage points from a peak of 70% to about 63% now. In some states like Tennessee and Indiana, it’s down 12 percentage points. That’s the question of value. The second issue is demographics.
We begin to run out of 18-year-olds in 2026, 18 years after the 2008 recession, which is when people stopped having as many children. So those two things are conspiring to really hurt American enrollment. So not to digress too much from our conversation about immigration, but international students are not necessarily taking up spaces that might go to Americans. Nor are all international students. I should point, we should both point out, driving Maserati’s around Commonwealth Avenue.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) That is also true.
MARCUS: But for all of those that we see, we also see a lot of international students whose parents work hard to be able to afford their tuition or whose government subsidized them to come and, you know, study in the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Thank you for saving me from many angry emails. Maybe it’s just Boston University and Commonwealth Avenue, which is in Boston, folks. But anyway, Jon, but so that’s the potential economic hit to universities and their communities. But what about the U.S. economy as a whole, if we’re not keeping these folks? Again, just to reiterate the whole point of your story, that have been educated at these same top universities in the United States, and we are not keeping them here to then be workers and potentially, you know, entrepreneurs or business owners, future American business owners.
MARCUS: We are pushing AI. Half of the people in graduate programs that lead to AI are international students. We’re pushing semiconductor development through the CHIPS Act. We aren’t producing enough people to do the brainpower that that requires. We are engaged in an international competition, in a knowledge economy. We’re not keeping up.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So I need you to take me back to Congress, though, because as we started the conversation, you laid out that the H-1B program, that the cap on it, hasn’t changed in 30 years. Immigration has obviously been the hot button issue in the United States. But even there, you know, if memory serves, Donald Trump himself, you know, had said maybe we should have more of a merit-based system. And so if there is some kind of political overlap regarding, again, these high skilled workers that we want to keep the United States, why haven’t we seen any progress?
MARCUS: Donald Trump twice proposed a merit-based immigration system. There have been and are now currently bills in Congress to allow for skilled immigration or to expand skilled immigration or make it or streamline it. They’ve never gone anywhere. I’m not a political reporter, but my sense as an American is that this is just an issue no one is prepared to step up to fix.
CHAKRABARTI: I don’t understand why.
MARCUS: If either one of us knew the answer to that question, you know, I think we’d be smarter than a lot of other people that are trying to figure it out, as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, okay. But just to be clear, because we were talking about this earlier before the show, Jon, the intent of the Trump administration. Or when Donald Trump, you know, was touting the glories of a merit-based system may not have necessarily been to maximize the number of, you know, highly skilled workers in the United.
MARCUS: It might have been to draw a contrast between, or let me say that smarter people than me have suggested it was to say … there’s a lot of controversy over the word skills. Who are we to say what a skill is, but to take people with skills in, for example, tech or health care and differentiate them from other immigrants that people may not want to see accepted?
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Yeah, that’s a good point, because every time I’ve read about merit-based immigration systems, the first bit of pushback that comes is, “You can’t predict what skills you’ll need in the future.”
MARCUS: It’s not particularly equitable to say that someone that could afford to go to Stanford should be allowed to immigrate into any country. I mean, that’s a much bigger question that has also been raised by activists, including in the U.K. and other countries where they are welcoming immigrants with what we’ve been referring to as skills.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, so the point being also that there’s something fundamental about how the American immigration system has believed, what it’s believed to have stood for, for, you know, for more than a century that we take, this is not necessarily the case anymore, but this is the land of immigrants. And we’ll take anyone who has the drive to want to succeed here. And so by, you know, by advancing any kind of program that might, like you say, produce a little bit of an inequity there, that might sort of strike at the heart of the American immigration story.
MARCUS: It’s possible, I think, to have an immigration system that can do both. Like Canada does, to be honest, it has a very robust immigration system for refugees at one end. And at the other end, it makes it very easy for the kind of people that they need to drive the industries that are the most competitive globally.
And meanwhile, while that’s not happening here in the U.S., we have people who have gone to the best universities. This country has some of the best in the world, and they’re waiting years and they’re just giving up and going elsewhere.
This program aired on June 26, 2023.
Paige Sutherland Producer, On Point
Paige Sutherland is a producer for On Point.
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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.
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