Unpacking the Federal STEM Initiatives and Immigrants’ Role in the US Workforce

by Nan Wu

Demand for workers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) continues to grow in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the country will need about one million more workers for new STEM jobs between 2020 and 2030. Meanwhile, immigrants are playing an increasingly important role in filling these jobs that are critical to U.S. innovation and the American economy.

To attract more international STEM talent and strengthen the country’s global competitiveness, the White House announced a series of administrative actions earlier this year. These policy changes provide more opportunities for American institutions and businesses to connect with STEM researchers, professionals, and students around the world.

Aiming to unpack these policy changes, the American Immigration Council has released five STEM guides with lists of frequently asked questions. The guides explore how different groups can participate in the initiatives—as institutions, employers, or individuals.

The guides have covered these five federal STEM initiatives:

  • An Early Career STEM Research Initiative, aiming to match U.S. companies interested in hosting nonimmigrant J-1 exchange visitors in STEM fields with program sponsors.
  • The inclusion of 22 new fields of study in the STEM Optional Practical Training (OPT) program.
  • An update to the USCIS policy manual on the O-1 visa category regarding how the agency determines eligibility.
  • An update to the USCIS policy manual on national interest waivers (NIWs) in the immigrant category for people with advanced degrees in STEM fields, with letters from U.S. government agencies of quasi-governmental entities, or are entrepreneurs.
  • An extension of academic training of up to 36 months for J-1 exchange visitors in STEM fields.

Along with the launch of the STEM guide, the Council has also released a factsheet that provides the latest data on the characteristics and contributions of foreign-born STEM Workers in the United States.

Using data from the American Community Survey, the fact sheet—focused on a set of 70 STEM occupations—shows that immigrants made up almost one-fourth, or 23.1%, of all STEM workers in the United States in 2019. This is a large jump from their share of 16.4% in 2000. Between 2000 and 2019, the number of immigrant STEM workers in the country more than doubled—from 1.2 million to 2.5 million—as the number of all STEM workers grew 44.5% during this period.

While STEM workers tend to be highly educated, immigrant STEM workers still stand out in their level of educational attainment. About 86.5% of immigrant STEM workers held at least a bachelor’s degree in 2019, compared to 67.3% of U.S.-born STEM workers. Nearly half, or 49.3%, of immigrant STEM workers had an advanced degree in 2019.

Since immigrant STEM workers have skills that tend to complement those of their U.S.-born co-workers, they play a significant role in increasing productivity and innovation in the workplace. This raises the revenue of their companies and allows their employers to hire more workers locally in the United States. Previous research found that every additional 100 foreign-born workers with advanced degrees in STEM fields create roughly 86 jobs for U.S.-born workers.

The data shows that more than one in four immigrant STEM workers came from India, followed by China, Mexico, and Vietnam.

The computer and math fields, which have the largest number of STEM workers, experienced the biggest increase in the foreign-born share of its workforce, from 17.7% in 2000 to 26.1% in 2019. The engineering group also saw a growing share of immigrants in its workforce, from 14.8% in 2000 to 19.5% in 2019.

During this same period, the share of STEM workers who are female has increased slightly, but women remain underrepresented among STEM workers. In 2019, women made up only 26.8% of all STEM workers and 27.2% of all immigrant STEM workers.

The factsheet provides more state-level analysis of the foreign-born STEM workforce. In total, there were 15 states in which immigrants made up at least one-fifth of all STEM workers in 2019.

More institutions, employers, and individuals should engage with the White House STEM Initiatives to strengthen the country’s STEM workforce, boost U.S. innovation, and create more jobs for American workers.

This post originally appeared on Immigration Impact Reprinted with permission.


About The Author

Nan Wu is the Deputy Director of Research at the American Immigration Council, where she focuses on studying the impact of immigration and issues of economic and social inclusion. Previously, Nan managed the production of research content at New American Economy, a bipartisan organization dedicated to creating smart, sensible immigration policies in cities, states, and nationally. Prior to that, she worked as a multimedia editor at The Wall Street Journal. Nan holds a M.A. in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, an M.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri, and a B.A. in Journalism from Renmin University of China.


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