Bills Aim to Keep Foreign Engineering Talent in U.S.


Jan/Feb 2012

Bills Aim to Keep Foreign Engineering Talent in U.S.


Congress is taking an unconventional approach to solving one jobs problem by making it easier for certain foreign nationals to work in the United States. That's right: Two pieces of legislation in Congress would grant additional visas to highly educated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals in order to strengthen the STEM workforce and enhance U.S. competitiveness in the global marketplace.

The Stopping Trained in America PhDs From Leaving the Economy (STAPLE) Act of 2011 (H.R. 399) and Immigration Driving Entrepreneurship in America (IDEA) Act of 2011 (H.R. 2161) would enable foreign nationals who have earned an advanced degree in a STEM subject from a U.S. institution and who have secured a job with an American employer to skip to the head of the visa line. The IDEA Act also would establish a fund to benefit low-income American students enrolled in STEM degree programs using the fees that employers pay to hire foreign workers.

Students From Abroad
According to the American Society for Engineering Education's 2010 Profiles of Engineering and Engineering Technology Colleges, foreign students comprised 46% of the students awarded engineering master's degrees and 54% of the students awarded engineering doctoral degrees at U.S. institutions in 2010. The National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010 finds that China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan were among the top countries exporting doctoral students to U.S. engineering schools in 2007 (the last year for which statistics were available). This means that, essentially, the U.S. is devoting about half its postgraduate engineering space to educating foreign students, most of whom hail from two of the world's largest economies and other rising global technology leaders.

NSPE's Stance
Luckily, the NSF reports that most students want to stay in the U.S. after graduating from advanced degree programs. The U.S. offers 65,000 H-1B temporary worker visas each year, with 20,000 additional visas available for students earning advanced degrees. U.S. academic and research institutions also have leeway in hiring foreign professionals. Each year, however, more foreign professionals and students apply for visas than can be accommodated. (In FY 2009, the cap was reached within a week, though the frenzy has subsided since then.) The STAPLE and IDEA Acts seek to circumvent the visa cap without overloading America's already strained job market by offering additional visas only to U.S.-educated foreign professionals with advanced degrees in STEM fields. The legislation is a targeted strike, intended to solve the STEM problem by strengthening the U.S. workforce while simultaneously preventing foreign student brain-drain.

NSPE historically has opposed increasing the number of H-1B visas because foreign engineers may not have the same background in professional practices (including building codes and standards and ethics) as American engineers, potentially endangering the public health and safety. Foreign engineers who have been educated in the U.S., however, already have a foundation in American engineering practices, differentiating them from their foreign-educated counterparts.

In the coming months, the NSPE Legislative and Government Affairs Committee plans to examine the complex issue of strengthening the American STEM workforce by granting additional visas to U.S.-educated foreign STEM professionals. Whatever the outcome, it seems clear that welcoming qualified professionals into the country must be coupled with ensuring that all engineers practicing in the U.S. have a solid background in American professional practices.

Fixing the Problem?
To date, neither the STAPLE Act nor the IDEA Act has generated much enthusiasm in Congress. Both bills have lain dormant for months in the subcommittees to which they were assigned. And while the STAPLE Act has generated modest bipartisan support, the IDEA Act has no Republican cosponsors.

There is some suggestion that the well-intended legislation might not actually fix America's STEM workforce problem. The NSF reports that between 2004 and 2007 (the last years for which statistics were available), an overwhelming 76%â??82% of foreign science and engineering doctoral students successfully found work in the U.S. after graduation. The students who left returned to their home countries of Taiwan, Japan, and India. Though the rate of successful employment stateside may have decreased since 2007 (no new data is available yet), the fact that most foreign doctoral graduates who wanted to were able to remain in the U.S. and that many of the students who returned home were from technologically competitive countries begs the question: Would the enticement of a green card be enough to lure STEM talent back to the U.S.?

Read NSPE's issue brief on H-1 and L-1 visas at For more information on legislation NSPE is following, visit the Legislation Action Center at