The entire US economy is at stake with Trump’s draft work-visa order

About a month before President Trump was sworn into office, CNBC asked me what I would do if I held the executive office for one day. My answer to Kayla Tausche was that I’d work to fix the growing student visa and H-1B visa problem we have in the US.  Well, the old adage that says “be careful what you wish for” couldn’t be more poignant based on the immigration policy rumored to be rolling out this week.

On the heels of an executive order temporarily banning US entry to all citizens from seven countries that have a recent history of training, harboring or exporting terrorists comes a potential policy change that could have immediate and harmful effects on the technology industry as a whole.  This weekend, a preliminary draft order titled “Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs” surfaced that, if signed, risks serious consequences for US-based tech companies’ ability to hire elite global talent. To be clear, the entire US economy is at stake with this draft order and tech leaders need to speak out on its dangers.

The order specifically goes after the H-1B visas that allow every tech company in Silicon Valley and across the US to hire non-US workers to fill highly technical jobs that perpetually sit unfilled. This system, described by popular theoretical physicist Michio Kaku as “the genius visa,” is a critical vehicle for attracting global talent were not enough US talent exists.

“If you remove the H-1B visa, you collapse the economy.” – Dr. Michio Kaku

Dr. Kaku described the problem succinctly in a 2011 debate arguing, “if you remove the H-1B visa, you collapse the economy. There are no Americans to take these jobs. These visas aren’t taking away jobs, they are creating industries.” That strikes at the core fallacy in this draft policy—it’s designed to protect a set of American workers that, on close inspection, don’t actually exist in our economy today. An order like the preliminary draft won’t help domestic job seekers and could cripple the US tech industry—that’s clearly not good for America.

How H-1B Visas Work

There are currently more than half a million high-skill IT and computer science jobs sitting unfilled in the US today. These are jobs that are so technical that there aren’t enough trained and lettered workers in the US to fill them. That gap is a significant problem because every job that sits unfilled is a bit of technological advancement and innovation that we’re leaving on the table. Last year the US only issued 85,000 H-1B visas out of 236,000 requests. 20,000 of those went to foreign recipients of master’s degrees from US universities and the remaining 65,000 were decided by a highly unpredictable lottery. Because the system today is so limited, it’s already needlessly slowing the wheels of progress—but the solution is not fewer visas, it’s more visas—or more immigration reform of some sort targeted specifically at highly-skilled workers.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and labor analytics Burning Glass Technologies (a non-partisan research firm). Image: Obama White House, 2015

The US Technical Jobs Pipeline Hinges On STEM Education

This week I’ve heard a myth resurface suggesting that if we gut the visa system, we can simply retrain US workers to fill the open roles. Unfortunately, that bromide is incredibly unrealistic. America is a country full of brilliant people, but a typical 18-month retraining program couldn’t scratch the surface of the technical skills an individual would need to acquire. The average American worker—hell, even the most advanced American worker can’t develop new master’s degree level expertise in a such a short time. Ideal candidates for these roles start their focus on math and science in their early education and dedicate years of study to reach elite status.

“If we want more Americans to compete with elite non-US workers, the solution begins with significantly better STEM education in the United States”

If we want more Americans to compete with elite non-US workers (and I believe we do) the solution has to begin with significantly better STEM education from K-12. Our kids entering high school currently rank 35th in the world in math and they don’t fare much better in science. And our high school graduates now compete in STEM skills with some of the most struggling developing nations. With so much technical illiteracy in the US, the H-1B visa program has become America’s secret weapon warding off economic catastrophe.

Troublingly, the US is not going to see a vastly greater pipeline of domestic technical talent coming from our universities anytime soon. It will take us years, if not decades, to move a large enough wave of students through primary and secondary schools, undergraduate and advanced degrees to exit the pipeline into the elite technical workforce. Until that day, the most technical jobs (all 545,000 of them) will simply sit open if H-1B visas shrink or disappear. The cost will be paid in lost technological progress, less new energy, less communications, and less commerce and a weaker America. I believe we can turn the tide of STEM education, but it’s going to take years and we need to be thoughtful about what happens in the meantime.

Low Hanging Fruit: Stop Sending Technical Degree-earners Home

During the final presidential debate, then GOP candidate Trump said, specifically on the question of H-1B visas, “We need highly skilled people in this country and if we can’t do it [with our own citizens] we’ll get ‘em in. We do need it in Silicon Valley. One of the biggest problems we have is people [from outside the US] go to the best colleges—Harvard, Stanford, Wharton—and as soon as they graduate they get shoved out though they want to stay in this country. They want to stay here desperately and they’re not able to it.”

On that point, I couldn’t agree more with President Trump. Our culture has made us a magnet—attracting the greatest brains around the world to our universities. It seems patently absurd to train those minds and then force them to go back to their home country when their student visas have expired due to their successful graduation. We need to give everyone who earns a degree from our best technical schools the opportunity to stay and work in the US and this draft order flies in the face of Trumps own (recent) words.

Why This Matters to Me 

A 2016 study from the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan think tank based in Arlington, Va., found that immigrants started more than half of today’s wave of US-based startups valued at $1 billion or more. The immigration reforms I’d like to see would help the US continue to attract the best and brightest minds from anywhere—and then find compelling ways to help them stay and thrive in the US for generations. I’d couple that with educational reform in STEM from K-12 so future generations of Americans can engage more successfully in the technology job market.

As a business, GoDaddy is a global tech company operating in 56 markets around the globe and I want the best for our employees in every country where we operate. The work we do in search, cloud computing, machine learning and predictive analytics requires some of the sharpest, most dedicated and passionate minds out there today. We recruit from the best schools in the US, but some jobs remain open. Much of the R&D work we do at US tech hubs in the Bay Area, Seattle, Cambridge, etc. depend in part on H-1B visas to bring in world-class talent. It’s a critical part of our toolset that I’d like to see expanded—not diminished. We need to be able to match elite technical jobs with elite technical people.  The crippled visa system that could come from the proposed executive order is not a step forward. We can do better.

“I want the US to be a place where the best minds in the world want to come to pursue the real American dream”

On a personal level, and as a US citizen, I selfishly want America to be a shining star of innovation and technological success. I want it to be a place where the best minds in the world want to come to pursue the American dream of achieving success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative. I have every confidence that such lofty goals are possible and I hope you’ll join me in working toward them.

Your Thoughts Welcome

If you have thoughts on the immigration challenges facing the tech industry, share them in comments below. I tend to drop in later in the evenings to read and respond.