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.

Immigration is nothing to fear, says Athena Trentin, director of the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan.

A stark example of this comes from Systems Technology Group (STG), a software tech firm based in Troy. The Oakland-County company currently has more than 100 job openings, according to Chairman and CEO Anup Popat, but despite the state’s high unemployment rate, there’s no one available to fill them.

“If we could find 100 qualified skilled IT professionals tomorrow, we would hire each one of them,” Popat says. This level of skill shortage is not only holding back STG, it’s a weight on companies across the country, one especially felt in former industrial centers that are hemorrhaging residents.

Many hurdles, challenges
But there are challenges to immigration at the policy level and beyond. One of them is logistics. That’s something Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is hoping to address with a recently announced partnership between the state of Michigan and the pro-immigration nonprofit Upwardly Global. According to Snyder, it’s a partnership that will help streamline Michigan’s skilled immigrants and refugees into the workforce by providing a clear pathway to licensing for various practices.

The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) in partnership with Upwardly Global has issued 10 online guides that explain Michigan’s professional licensing requirements for people with education or work experience acquired abroad. LARA’s new Professional Licensing Guides help fast track licensing for those in a number of fields including medical, engineering and architecture.

Another hurdle is a less definitive one. “The biggest obstacle when it comes to hiring immigrants is the fear of the unknown,” says Athena Trentin, director of the Global Talent Retention Initiative of Michigan (GTRI). GTRI is a product of many efforts including Global Detroit, The New Economy Initiative and the state of Michigan. Trentin helps boost international-student retention by working with universities and companies to find employment for foreign-born grads whose skills are in demand in the United States. As the only organization solely focused on international-student retention in the country, GTRI may be onto something: From 1990 to 2009, the number of foreign graduate students in science, engineering and health fields almost doubled, from 91,150 to 148,900, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The top three concerns employers have when it comes to hiring foreign students are, “I don’t know, I’m scared and what’s the public going to think?” Trentin says. Part of her job is helping to educate employers and put the facts in perspective. She says many employers don’t know that international students come with their own work authorizations, so there’s no immediate rush for visa sponsorship before employment. “When they hear that, they say, ‘Tell me more.'”

Ultimately, much of the pro-immigration conversation goes back to addressing the concern that immigrants are taking jobs from U.S. citizens. A lot of people including employers don’t understand the severity of the U.S. education shortage, according to Trentin.

“My own father doesn’t understand what I’m doing,” she says. “But the reality is if we don’t have people with advanced degrees in engineering and IT industries to create products and technologies, how are we gong to put working class people back to work building them?”

Immigrants also are seeking quality of life, says Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce in Michigan.

Meanwhile, the number of programs and initiatives geared to clearing a pathway for immigrants is having an increasing presence in Michigan. Programs like Welcome Matt, Welcoming Michigan, Upwardly Global, The New Economy Initiative of Southeast Michigan and ProsperUS Detroit all provide resources to help immigrants get established in the state, from ESL courses, housing and legal services to work authorization and employment services.

“Global Detroit is sort of the hub, the coordinator for all of these programs. We support by providing technical assistance,” Tobocman says.

The former state representative now champions a pragmatic approach to immigration. To him, it’s a no-brainer: “A shrinking population is a shrinking economy. Strong immigration means a stronger economy,” he says.

If he’s right, then Southeast Michigan is in a good place. Metro Detroit has the second largest immigrant influx in the Midwest. Why Michigan? “Some come because of the high demand in advanced auto manufacturing and design, others come for the low cost of living and the universities,” Tobocman says.

With Washington poised to pass some impactful changes to the country’s immigration policy, one of the big pieces of the reform will focus on allowing more visas for those with advanced degrees in STEM fields. One of the suggestions is to increase the annual allotment for H-1B visas, which give highly educated foreign workers the right to work in the United States indefinitely, as long as they hold a job. An increase in work visas could spell a greater number of skilled immigrants in Michigan.

“We’re the early adopters,” Tobocman says. “When we started this work, we didn’t think there was going to be any reform given the gridlock in Washington. I think we’re really lucky to have these programs in place.”

What’s the goal and who benefits?
Still, not everyone is sure that an increase in immigration will be a total economic game changer for Michigan.

“While a lot of the research shows that immigrants can be beneficial to the economy, who benefits most becomes the bigger question,” says Steven Gold, Associate Chair of the Sociology Department at Michigan State University and author of the book, “The Store in the Hood: A Century of Ethnic Business and Conflict.”

Gold says advanced, skilled immigrants may drive the economy up in certain areas but these upticks won’t affect the most disadvantaged immigrants and citizens looking for work. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the goal?'” he says.

John Taylor, left, Delphi Corp. senior Global Supplier Diversity manager, talks to Sanjay Patel, Midwest Molding director of Purchasing, at the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce East-West Business Connections business-to-business procurement event this spring in Troy. Those who advocate in favor of immigration say diversity means a beefier tax base, job creation through entrepreneurship and greater access to high level skills.

Also, it’s not clear if there will be a direct correlation between blue-collar labor jobs and an increase of higher-tech, STEM related jobs as some suggest.

Gold says while immigrants tend to be high in education, whether they are going to contribute enough to replace union auto manufacturing and steel jobs is uncertain.

There is also a human side that is sometimes lost when talking about immigration’s affect on the economy. Immigrants are people with families and cultures, not just workers and dollar signs, says Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce in Michigan. While Wang supports attracting immigrants to the state, she says it’s crucial to make sure that polices and programs are well rounded to offer a sustainable quality of life to foreign nationals.

One issue that concerns Wang and others is that the conversation has not turned to women, who, due to cultural and financial restraints, do not generally have the same access to education in high-tech skills as their male counterparts.

“If you have these immigration laws that are preferential to people who can start high tech businesses, it totally leaves out women,” Wang says. “We have to think about the impact of this down the road.”

And for many immigrants, family comes first. “We can let in skilled workers, but what about their parents?” Wang asks. “If you don’t let families in, workers will go home to be with family and so much for that American business.”

Michigan can benefit from immigrants’ advanced skill sets, says Steve Tobocman, director of Global Detroit.

Jamie Longazel, Ph. D., an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Dayton, agrees with Wang. He says immigration produces an economic benefit, but he is hesitant to viewing it solely as an economic boost.

“These are real people having their lives altered by relocation. So we should keep the human side in mind,” he says. “What often goes unsaid is often times we encourage immigration so we can exploit immigrant labor.”

One example of how high-skill workers can be exploited came from Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, in a scathing critique of H-1B visas. In his recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, Eisenbrey wrote that H-1Bs workers were “indentured” to companies in exchange for a visa sponsorship. He argued that because their jobs are tied to their visas, some workers on H-1B visas feel that they can never quit or fight for higher wages for fear of losing their visa.

Conversely, Trentin says H-1B visas improve wages for immigrants and American workers. “That’s one of the big myths-”that people with H-1Bs are spoiling our wages,’ she says, explaining that with H-1Bs, companies have to prove to the Department of Labor that they have the income to pay workers a fair wage. “It’s a huge win. Immigrants may be willing to work for less, but the government won’t let them,” she says. Others agree Eisenbrey’s viewpoint is skewed. “This person may be arguing that the laws are not being adequately enforced,” Tobocman says. “The law states that companies need to pay a prevailing wage.”

Plus, the demand for H-1B visas is at an all time high, with the number of applications almost doubling the annual cap for them last year, Tobocman points out.

Overall impact seen as positive
But while people like Gov. Snyder and other immigration advocates are heralding an international workforce as the wind to fill economic sails, experts are cautious to call it a panacea.

Longazel says he doesn’t think attracting high skilled immigrants will solve the economic problems of the region at large. “Will it help a little bit? Probably. But we’re talking about a move to a post-industrial economy,” he says. “The economic circumstances are far more profound than can be changed by even large amount of people immigrating into these places.”

The foreign-born population represented about 1 in 20 residents in 1960, mostly from countries in Europe who settled in the Northeast and Midwest, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today’s foreign-born population makes up about 1 in 8 U.S. residents, mostly immigrants from Latin America and Asia settling in the West and South.

Longazel says that there are bigger factors at play, namely globalization that will make it harder to regain the working class corps America once had. As globalization continues to rise, global markets are growing far more competitive than they ever have, he says. And high stake competition is all about reducing the bottom line. The days of manufacturing one thing in one part of the world, let alone a specific region of a country, are over. That, and shifts in technology have many wondering what the future holds for the American working class.

“We have these things called 3-D printers that are coming into play-”the prospect of being able to manufacture something in our own home -” it’s changes like that, changes that affect the size of the production market -” those much bigger forces affect a place’s economy far much bigger than small initiatives,” Longazel says.

While there are skeptics, the energy around getting more talent into Michigan by way of immigration is in full effect. In a state like Michigan that hugs an international border, immigration is a pertinent part of an economic conversation. It may not be the silver bullet that brings back the industrial heyday, but experts agree that immigration overall has positive economic impact.

No mater how you cut it, “it’s only going to help us,” Trentin says. “Of all developed countries, we’re the last to look to international immigration to fit our economic needs. We’re so far behind the rest of the world right now and we’ve got to catch up.”