In an economy that is producing few jobs, many like to claim that immigrants will take jobs away from Americans and should not be allowed to cross our borders.

But with regard to certain industries, they are dead wrong, suggests Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution and founding director of its Center for Technology Innovation

“The reality is that there are lots of industries that are experiencing worker shortages,” says West. “We’ve done research looking at both high- and low-skilled industries and have found that there are lots of industries that are experiencing difficulty recruiting workers.”

At the low skill end are the hotel, restaurant, and agriculture industries, which in some cases report difficulty finding workers simply because they are looking to fill jobs that Americans don’t want to do. Industries that are seeking but not finding highly skilled workers include healthcare, technology, and life sciences.

“These are higher-paying occupations, and you would think there would be lots of Americans to fill those positions,” says West, “but the problem is lack of supply. Not that many American students are getting decrees in science, technology, engineering, and math. For those particular majors, the majority of the students studying in those fields are foreign born.”

West will be the keynote speaker at a conference titled “The Innovation Bridge: Enhancing American Competitiveness and Job Creation Through Smart Immigration,” sponsored by Einstein’s Alley, and the Partnership for a New American Economy, Tuesday, June 26, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., at the Institute for Advanced Study’s Wolfensohn Hall.

A panel of major academic and business leaders from Einstein’s Alley, moderated by Peter Kann, former chief executive officer of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, will discuss the impact of immigration policy on their institutions and companies. Cost: $75. To register, go to www.einsteinsalley.org. For more information, contact Katherine Kish at 609-799-8898 or kkish@einsteinsalley.org.

Though the United States made huge gains after World War II, much of which was fueled by science and technology, today we do not have a sufficient number of workers in those areas that are so essential for long-term competition and innovation. As a result, we are facing a major crisis in our competitiveness as an economy and a nation.

West suggests several actions that might begin to relieve this crisis, some focused on awareness and education within the United States and others on changes in our approach to immigration:

Raise awareness of the problem. People must learn to accept the paradox of worker shortages in certain industries at a time of high national unemployment and to understand the validity of certain types of immigration reform to bring in the workers we need.

Encourage Americans to go into high-tech fields so that we can maintain our long-term competitiveness. At present, says West, Americans are choosing not to study in those fields. “There are lots of jobs in those areas,” says West. “You would think that the guarantee of a job would attract more people to these fields, but this is not happening.”

Create better opportunities for financial aid in scientific fields. “That’s a way to encourage people to study in fields that are important to long-term competition,” says West.

Encourage more women to go into science and technology. “Women are underrepresented,” he says. “If we could make progress in that area, it would make a big difference.”

Keep foreign students in this country after they finish graduate school. “These are the people who create jobs and build businesses,” says West. “Half of Silicon Valley companies have had an immigrant founder or cofounder.” One way to keep foreign students here, he says, would be to give green cards to all students getting graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Improve the H-1B visa program and increase its cap to meet employment demand in science, technology, engineering, and math. This program gives workers a visa for about six years — enough time for them to make a contribution to this country, says West.

If these workers fit certain categories, they can stay in the United States, but some have to return to their home companies. “We spend a lot of time training people, and just when they are getting good, we send them back, so we lose the benefit, and they end up competing with us from abroad,” says West. “It is counterproductive. Sometimes countries have policies that don’t make any sense, and this is one of them.” Whereas 10 years ago, we set aside 195,000 visas each year for workers in these areas, by 2004, the number was capped at 65,000.

Increase usage of the EB-5 visa program for entrepreneurs. The idea behind this visa is to bring in people who promise to start a business and create a certain number of jobs in the United States. Currently such foreign entrepreneurs must invest at least $500,000 in the nation’s rural or “targeted employment areas” or at least $1 million in other areas and create or preserve at least 10 full-time jobs for qualifying U.S. workers within two years. If they are successful, the visa becomes a permanent green card. “It is a guaranteed job creation program, but very few take advantage,” says West.

West grew up in rural Ohio, north of Cincinnati, where his father was a dairy farmer and his mother, a secretary. He graduated from Miami University in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree and earned his doctorate at Indiana University; both in political science. He taught political science and public policy at Brown University for 26 years and was also director of its Taubman Center for Public Policy. He moved to Brookings in 2008.

The Center for Technology Innovation that he directs explores a range of topics related to technology innovation, including governance, democracy, and public sector innovation; policy architecture, legal and constitutional aspects of technology; digital media and social networking; health information technology; virtual education, and green technology.

West’s current research focuses on technology, mass media, campaigns and elections, and public sector innovation. In his book “Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy,” he looks at the history of immigration policy in the United States.

Of course, to even begin to get anywhere toward reforming our immigration system, we need to do the basics like improving immigration processing, which is now very bureaucratic, cumbersome, and expensive. Currently the system is almost entirely paper based, requiring extensive copying of documents and then sending them back and forth by paper mail.

But the motivation for change is strong, because the consequences of not changing are so serious. Says West, “We have an unusual situation where Americans are not studying in scientific fields in large numbers and we’re not allowing foreign students to stay, and that is a recipe for disaster.”

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