Highly Skilled Workers Sought in Rust Belt Is Immigration the Answer?


By Minehaha Forman
August 2013

What if every person living in the cities of Cleveland, Dayton and Cincinnati walked out -“ just up and left? More than 800,000 people would be zapped from the state's economy. Then what?

While such a grand exodus seems unthinkable, it puts into perspective an eerie reality: Since 2001, more than 800,000 people have left Rust Belt cities -” places like Chicago, St. Louis and, more famously, Detroit. Combined, these former industrial meccas have experienced population losses equal to the total number of residents in Cleveland, Dayton and Cincinnati, according to data from the 2011 U.S. Census.

Pair that with the region's growing need for education and skills in advanced Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields and the outlook gets even bleaker. It's a crisis that has left those still living in these hollowing cities asking: Now what?

The answer, some believe, lies overseas. Forget outsourcing jobs, what about in-sourcing them? That is, aggressively attracting highly educated and skilled immigrants who could potentially breathe life into shriveling cities, especially in places like Michigan. Proponents say attracting more people means a beefier tax base, job creation through entrepreneurship and greater access to high level skills that many post-industrial American workers lack. In return, educated people from all over the world looking to relocate will have an easier chance at the American Dream.

But there are those who ask, at a time when native-born Americans are struggling to find work, why usher in more people to an already underemployed workforce?

"The research is pretty clear that immigrants create jobs rather than take jobs," says Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit, a group dedicated to promoting the economic benefits of global immigration. He says that in Michigan immigrants generally have higher education and skill sets -“ skills that will ultimately beget more jobs for everyone. And he has an arsenal of facts to back it up.

A 2010 Global Detroit study citing data from the Migration Policy Institute showed that immigrants are 56 percent more likely to hold a college degree than a native-born citizen. And consider this: Foreign born residents represent 12.5 percent of the U.S. population while nearly half of all new Ph.D.s in engineering, life sciences, physical sciences and computer sciences are awarded to foreign-born students, according to an article in the Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership.

The data point back to an ongoing problem: There just aren't enough highly educated, highly skilled STEM workers in Michigan or in the country. In the long run, economists hope the changing economy will encourage more young Americans to pursue skills that better match the needs of a knowledge-based economy. But in the short term, the talent gap is drastic.

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