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Chapter 3. Science and Engineering Labor Force

Immigration and the S&E Workforce

The industrialized nations of the world have long benefitted from the inflow of foreign-born scientists and engineers and the S&E skills and knowledge they bring. S&E skills are more easily transferrable across international borders than many other skills, and many countries have made it a national priority to attract international talent in S&E (NSB 2008). A large proportion of workers employed in S&E fields in the United States are foreign born. This section presents data on foreign-born scientists and engineers in the U.S. economy, including recent indicators of migration to the United States and the rate at which foreign-born recipients of U.S. doctoral degrees remain in the United States after earning their degree (stay rates). Data from various sources, including the Census Bureau, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and NSF (SESTAT and SED) are discussed to study the immigrant S&E workforce in the United States. This section ends with a discussion of the global migration patterns of high-skill workers.

“Foreign-born” is a broad category, ranging from long-term U.S. residents with strong roots in the United States to recent immigrants who compete in global job markets and whose main social, educational, and economic ties are in their countries of origin. When interpreting data on foreign-born workers, the range of individuals in this category should be kept in mind. Both the number and proportion of foreign-born workers employed in S&E occupations in the United States have risen over time (table 3-27). Nationally representative survey data, such as SESTAT and ACS, although collected in different ways, yield broadly consistent estimates of the number of foreign-born scientists and engineers in the United States. In 2011, foreign-born individuals accounted for 21% of workers employed in nonacademic S&E occupations in the United States, which is higher than their representation in the overall population (13%). Among college-educated workers in nonacademic S&E occupations, the proportion of foreign-born individuals is higher: 26%, which is up from 22% in 2000 (table 3-27).

Characteristics of Foreign-Born Scientists and Engineers

Compared to the entire college-educated workforce, college graduates employed in S&E occupations are disproportionately foreign born. Among SESTAT respondents employed in S&E occupations in 2010, 27% were foreign born. Among all college-educated workers (regardless of occupational category) in 2010, 15% were foreign born. In general, foreign-born workers employed in S&E occupations tend to have higher levels of education than their U.S. native-born counterparts. Among individuals employed in S&E occupations, 19% of foreign-born scientists and engineers have a doctorate, compared to 10% of U.S. native-born scientists and engineers in these occupations. In most S&E occupations, the higher the degree level, the greater the proportion of the workforce who are foreign born (figure 3-35). This relationship is weakest among social scientists and strongest among computer and mathematical scientists and engineers. In 2010, at the bachelor’s degree level, the proportion of foreign-born individuals in S&E occupations ranged from 13% (physical scientists) to 23% (computer and mathematical scientists). However, at the doctoral level, over 40% were foreign born in each S&E occupation except the social sciences.

Among SESTAT respondents employed in S&E occupations, foreign-born workers (median age 40 years) are younger than their native-born counterparts (median age 43). The distribution by sex is largely similar across foreign-born (26% female) and native-born (28% female) workers in S&E jobs. Asians account for the majority (60%) of foreign-born workers in S&E occupations but only a very small segment (3%) of U.S. native-born workers in these occupations (appendix table 3-20). In comparison, whites represent 27% of foreign-born workers in S&E jobs but 86% of native-born workers in these jobs. Nearly 90% of all Asians employed in S&E occupations are foreign-born.

In 2010, 56% of the foreign-born S&E highest degree holders in the United States were from Asia; 21% were from Europe. The remaining foreign-born workers came from North America, Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa, each of which supplied 4% to 5% of the foreign-born S&E highest degree holders in the United States. In 2010, the leading country of origin among immigrants with a highest degree in S&E was India, which accounted for 19% of the foreign-born S&E highest degree holders (figure 3-36). With less than half the total for India, China was the second leading country with 8%. Source countries for the nearly 395,000 foreign-born holders of S&E doctorates are somewhat more concentrated, with China providing a higher proportion (23%) than India (13%). These patterns by source region and country for foreign-born S&E highest degree holders in the United States have been stable since 2003.

Source of Education

The SESTAT surveys ask respondents to provide information on where they received their postsecondary degrees. They also ask foreign-born respondents to provide information on why they came to the United States. Together, this information is helpful for understanding the educational and career paths of foreign-born scientists and engineers working in the United States and possible factors that influence these paths.

The majority of foreign-born scientists and engineers in the United States received their initial university training abroad. In 2010, there were about 4.3 million college-educated, foreign-born individuals employed in the United States with an S&E degree or in an S&E occupation; of these, 2.3 million received their first bachelor’s degree abroad. Many of these individuals came to the United States for job or economic opportunities, educational opportunities, or family-related reasons.[26] Among employed foreign-born scientists and engineers, 54% of those whose highest degree is at the bachelor’s level received their initial university degree from a foreign institution. The proportion is similar among foreign-born scientists and engineers with advanced degrees (53%), although SESTAT lacks information for a small proportion of individuals in this group.[27]

Many foreign-born scientists and engineers in the United States appear to come here for further higher education after receiving their initial university training abroad. Of the 2.1 million foreign-born scientists and engineers who are employed in the United States and hold an advanced degree, two-thirds completed their highest degree in the United States, divided almost evenly between those who received their first bachelor’s degree abroad (671,000) and those who received their first bachelor’s degree in the United States (647,000). Almost one-fourth of foreign-born scientists and engineers with an advanced degree (472,000) received both their initial university degree and advanced (highest) degree abroad. In contrast, only a small number of foreign-born scientists and engineers (35,000) received their first bachelor’s degree in the United States and their highest degree abroad.

The information provided by foreign-born scientists and engineers on factors that influenced their migration to the United States reinforces the patterns seen in the migration data. Among those who obtained their initial university degree abroad but their highest degree in the United States, the most commonly cited reason for coming to the United States was educational opportunities (27%). Family-related reasons (9%) and job/economic opportunities (7%) were cited by much smaller proportions. In comparison, among those who received both degrees abroad, the most commonly cited reasons for coming to the United States were job/economic opportunities (29%) and family-related reasons (23%), followed by scientific or professional infrastructure (11%), and educational opportunities (10%).

Among the foreign-born doctorate holders employed in the United States, 58% received this degree from a U.S. institution and 83% (of those for whom SESTAT contains information on first bachelor’s degree) received their initial university degree from a foreign institution.

New Foreign-Born Workers

During the 2007–09 economic downturn, two indicators—the number of temporary work visas issued by the U.S. government in visa classes for high-skill workers and the stay rates of foreign-born U.S. doctorate recipients—showed evidence that the volume of new foreign-born workers entering the U.S. S&E workforce might be declining. Recent data, however, indicate that this period of decline may be temporary. In addition to these two indicators, this section discusses characteristics of workers with temporary work visas and country profiles of new foreign-born workers.

Temporary Visas

The number of temporary work visas issued for high-skill workers provides an indication of new immigrant workers entering the U.S. labor force.[28] After several years of growth, the largest classes of these temporary visas declined during the recent economic downturn (figure 3-37). Data since the downturn, however, suggest that growth has resumed in recent years. Despite the increases in the issuance of temporary visas since fiscal year (FY) 2009, the numbers have not yet reached the recent highs seen in FY 2007, before the beginning of the economic downturn (figure 3-37). A decline in the issuance of these visas, particularly H-1B visas, also occurred around the more mild recession in 2001.

H-1B visas account for a significant proportion of foreign-born high-skill workers employed by U.S. firms on temporary visas. This type of visa is issued to individuals who seek temporary entry into the United States in a specialty occupation that requires professional skills. It is issued for up to 3 years with the possibility of an extension to 6 years. In 2012, the United States issued nearly 136,000 H-1B visas, up 23% from the recent low in 2009 (110,000) but still down from the recent peak of about 154,000 issued in 2007 (figure 3-37).

Issuance of visas in other temporary work categories that usually contain large numbers of high-skill workers also rose since 2009; however, the H-1B visa category has shown continued increase since 2009, unlike the J-1 and L-1 categories (figure 3-37).

Characteristics of H-1B Visa Recipients

Although H-1B visas are not issued exclusively for scientists and engineers, the majority of H-1B visa recipients work in S&E or S&E-related occupations (appendix table 3-21). However, precise counts of H-1B visas issued to individuals in these occupations cannot be obtained because USCIS does not classify occupations with the same taxonomy used by NSF. In 2011, workers in computer-related occupations as classified by USCIS were the most common recipients of H-1B visas, accounting for almost half (48%) of new H-1B visas issued. The total number of newly initiated H-1B visas for workers in computer-related fields increased significantly between 2010 and 2011, following a steep decline between 2008 and 2009 during the economic downturn. The proportion of H-1B recipients who worked in computer sciences was considerably lower in the earlier part of the 2000s. For example, in 2002, only 25% of H-1B visa recipients worked in computer-related fields (NSB 2012).

H-1B visa recipients tend to possess advanced degrees. In FY 2011, 55% of new H-1B visa recipients had an advanced degree, including 39% with master’s degrees, 5% with professional degrees, and 12% with doctorates (DHS USCIS 2012). The degree distribution differs by occupations. In FY 2009, for example, the vast majority of mathematical and physical scientists (83%) and life scientists (87%) with H-1B visas held advanced degrees; 44% of mathematical and physical scientists and 61% of life scientists with H-1B visas had doctorates (NSB 2012).

In 2011, 53% of new H-1B visa recipients were from India, and another 10% were from China (DHS USCIS 2012). H-1B visa recipients are relatively young. In 2011, 46% of new H-1B visa recipients were between the ages of 25 and 29, and another 25% were between the ages of 30 and 34 (DHS USCIS 2012).

Table 3-28 shows salaries paid to new recipients of H-1B visas by occupation group. These starting salaries, taken from final visa application forms sent to USCIS, are different from H-1B salaries that firms report on their applications to the Department of Labor, which are filed much earlier in the H-1B process. The relatively low median salaries for workers in life sciences may reflect the common use of H-1B visas to hire individuals for relatively low-paying postdoc positions.

Short-Term Stay Rates for U.S. S&E Doctorate Recipients

Among doctorate recipients, the period immediately after earning their doctorate is a pivotal point that can substantially affect long-term career trajectories. During this period, foreign-born doctorate recipients who remain in the United States may set themselves on a path to long-term residency.

At the time they receive their doctorates, foreign-born students at U.S. universities report whether they intend to stay in the United States and whether they have a firm offer to work in the United States (either a postdoc or a job) the following year.[29] These responses provide estimates of short-term stay rates.[30]

Most foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates plan to stay in the United States after graduation. At the time of doctorate receipt, 75% of foreign-born recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates, including those on both temporary and permanent visas, plan to stay in the United States, and 48% have either accepted an offer of postdoc study or employment or are continuing employment in the United States (figure 3-38). The proportion of foreign-born S&E doctorate recipients planning to stay in the United States has risen over time. In 1991, 68% of foreign students who earned S&E doctorates at U.S. universities reported that they planned to stay in the United States after graduation, and 37% said that they had firm offers for postdoc study or employment. Throughout the 1980s, these proportions were about 50% and 33%, respectively (NSB 2012).

During the latter part of the decade 2000–09, a period marked by the economic downturn and financial crisis, both the percentage of foreign-born S&E doctorate recipients reporting plans to stay in the United States and the percentage of those reporting firm offers to stay declined slightly (figure 3-38). The overall number of foreign-born S&E doctorate recipients also declined in 2009 and 2010. Although the numbers have since risen in 2011, the levels remain below the recent peaks seen in 2008.

Overall, S&E short-term stay rates reflect the high short-term stay rates in computer and mathematical sciences, the biological and related sciences, the physical sciences, and engineering (appendix table 3-22). Between 2008 and 2011, the short-term stay rates in these four fields ranged from 77% to 83%, as measured by reports of intentions to stay in the United States. However, the short-term stay rates for foreign-born U.S. S&E doctorate recipients in health fields (71%) were somewhat lower, and those in the social sciences (57%) were substantially lower.

Stay rates vary by place of origin. Between 2008 and 2011, the vast majority of U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from China (86%) and from India (87%) reported plans to stay in the United States, and close to 60% of these individuals reported accepting firm offers for employment or postdoc research in the United States (appendix table 3-22). U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were less likely than those from China and India to stay in the United States (figure 3-39). About half of U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from Europe had firm plans to stay in the United States after graduation (appendix table 3-22). In North America, the percentage of U.S. S&E doctorate recipients who had definite plans to stay in the United States was higher for those from Canada than for those from Mexico (appendix table 3-22).

Among U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from the two top countries of origin, China and India, the proportions reporting plans to stay in the United States have declined since the early part of the decade of the 2000s (appendix table 3-22).

Long-Term Stay Rates for U.S. S&E Doctorate Recipients

Long-term stay rates indicate the degree to which foreign-born recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates enter and remain in the U.S. labor force to pursue their careers. For a particular cohort of foreign-born noncitizen S&E doctorate recipients, the proportion of that cohort that pays federal taxes a given number of years after receiving their degrees is an indicator of the cohort’s long-term stay rate.[31] Estimates of short-term stay rates are derived from data on reported intentions to stay in the United States within the year after graduation. Stay rates over the short term can be compared with those over a longer duration to analyze how stated intentions for the period immediately after graduation compare with actual behavior some years later.

Stay rate data include foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates who were on either a permanent or a temporary visa at the time they received their doctorates. For the 2001 and 2006 graduating cohorts, stay rate data are available separately for permanent and temporary visa holders. Within these cohorts, stay rates are particularly stable over time among individuals who received their doctorates while on a permanent visa (figure 3-40). Temporary residents, who account for the vast majority of noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates, have lower stay rates than do permanent residents, and their stay rates decline with additional years since degree. For example, among foreign-born U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from the 2001 cohort, those who were on a temporary visa at the time they earned their degree had a 2-year stay rate in 2003 that was 16 percentage points lower than those with a permanent visa. This difference grew wider over time, reaching almost 26 percentage points by 2011, as stay rates for temporary visa holders fell while stay rates for permanent residents changed little.

The stay rates within the entire 2001 and 2006 cohorts of foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates fell with additional years since graduation (Finn 2014); this was a result of the declining stay rates among temporary visa holders, who accounted for nearly 90% of all noncitizen U.S. S&E doctorate recipients in these cohorts. The 2001 cohort had a stay rate after 2 years of 73%; after 10 years, this rate declined by 8 percentage points. The 2006 cohort had a 2-year stay rate of 74%, which declined to 68% after 5 years. In comparison, among the cohort of foreign-born U.S. S&E doctorate recipients who earned their degrees in 1995, stay rates were relatively stable as additional years passed since graduation. The 1995 cohort had a 2-year stay rate of 65%, which dropped to 61% after 16 years (Finn 2014). Stay rate data for the 1995 cohort, however, are not separately available for permanent and temporary residents. Data from earlier and subsequent years suggest that temporary visa holders accounted for the vast majority of foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates in 1995 (Finn 2012); as a result, temporary residents likely played an important role in the overall stability of the stay rate within this cohort.

In recent years, long-term stay rates have fluctuated within a fairly narrow range, neither increasing nor declining consistently (table 3-29). Among U.S. S&E doctorate recipients with a temporary visa at graduation, 5-year stay rates rose in the latter part of the decade of the 2000s after declining for several years around the 200709 economic downturn. While figure 3-40 shows the stay rate data annually for fixed cohorts (2001 and 2006 graduating cohorts), table 3-29 presents data on 5-year stay rates during the 200111 period. Data for each year reflect the stay rate in that year for the cohort that received their doctorates 5 years earlier. The 5-year stay rate rose to 66% in 2011, close to the recent high level seen in 2005 (67%).

The trends in the 5-year stay rates vary across source countries (table 3-29). Among foreign-born recipients from China (the largest source country) who were temporary residents at the time they received their U.S. S&E doctorates, the 5-year stay rate declined in 2011, continuing the trend since before the economic downturn. However, even with this decline, rates remain higher than those of other major locations. Foreign-born U.S. S&E doctorate recipients from other major source countries/economies, like India and Taiwan, saw slight increases in the 5-year stay rate between 2009 and 2011, although their stay rate overall declined between 2001 and 2011. Among foreign-born recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates from South Korea who were on a temporary visa at the time they received their doctorate, stay rates remained stable between 2007 and 2011 after doubling during the first half of the decade.

Data from the 2006 cohort suggest that among temporary visa holders receiving U.S. S&E doctorates, stated intentions to stay in the United States (short-term stay rates) are reasonable indicators of stay rates some years later (Finn 2014). Among temporary residents who received their U.S. S&E doctorate in 2006 and reported definite plans to stay in the United States within the year after graduation, 94% were in the United States 1 year later and 80% remained 5 years later. Among the 2006 cohort of temporary residents who reported plans to stay in the United States (as opposed to firm employment offers), 86% were in the United States 1 year later and 72% remained 5 years later. A number of factors are likely to affect how precisely short-term intentions to stay in the United States predict actual behavior some years later. Among these are overall economic conditions and job opportunities in the United States, comparable conditions in the doctorate recipient’s country of origin, and family-related and other personal considerations.

High-Skill Migration Worldwide

No worldwide or internationally comparable data exist on the migration of workers in S&E occupations or with college-level S&E degrees. Docquier and Rapoport (2012) compiled and analyzed data on international migration to OECD countries by educational attainment in 1990 and 2000 (see also Docquier, Lowell, and Marfouk 2009; Docquier and Marfouk 2006). They defined high-skill migrants as the total number of foreign-born individuals, age 25 and over, with some postsecondary education living in an OECD country. They gathered data for nearly 200 source countries (which included OECD and non-OECD countries), all but a handful of which are independent nations. More recent and comprehensive data on global high-skill migration patterns are not currently available. However, the flow of migration historically has been from developing to developed nations, and the OECD data for the 1990 to 2000 period confirm this pattern. As R&D activity expands in developing countries, press reports suggest increased movement in the opposite direction; however, systematic and recent data do not exist to address that pattern.

The data on migration to OECD countries indicate several patterns in international migration of individuals age 25 and older:

  • Between 1990 and 2000, the total number of immigrants (regardless of skill level) in OECD countries increased from about 42 million to about 59 million.
  • Globally, OECD countries account for the vast majority of high-skill immigrants. The migration rate among high-skill individuals to the OECD nations changed only slightly between 1990 and 2000 (rising from 5.1% to 5.5%). Nonetheless, because worldwide education levels are rising, the proportion of high-skill individuals among those who immigrated to OECD countries rose during this period, from 30% to 35%.
  • Rates of legal emigration were much greater among high-skill individuals (5.5% in 2000) than among those with less education (1.3% in 2000).
  • In countries that the World Bank classifies as low income, the gap in emigration rates between high- and low-skill groups (7.6% and 0.3%, respectively, in 2000) was especially large. In comparison, the rates of high- and low-skill emigration rates were similar in countries that the World Bank classifies as high income (3.9% and 3.6%, respectively, in 2000).
  • Between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of women among high-skill migrants rose, partly because of the worldwide increase in the proportion of individuals with some postsecondary education who are women.
  • In 2000, the countries estimated to have the largest number of high-skill emigrants living in OECD countries were the United Kingdom (1.5 million), the Philippines (1.1 million), India (1.0 million), Mexico (0.9 million), and Germany (0.9 million) (figure 3-41). The proportion of high-skill emigrants who are women varied considerably across source countries (figure 3-41; see also Docquier, Lowell, and Marfouk 2009).

In a more limited study covering six major destination countries (United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, United Kingdom, and France), Defoort (2008) concluded that worldwide emigration rates for high-skill persons between 1975 and 2000 were stable in a large number of countries. Stable rates of emigration, however, would produce an increase in the total number of high-skill emigrants due to rising levels of worldwide education and skill.

Regarding high-skill migration to the United States, college-educated foreign-born workers in the United States are disproportionately found in S&E occupations and disproportionately have advanced degrees (see “Characteristics of the Foreign-Born Scientists and Engineers”). However, current international data do not enable researchers to assess whether and how migration rates globally or to OECD countries vary among different categories of high-skill workers.

Notes
[26] When asked about the most important reason for coming to the United States, many foreign-born scientists and engineers who obtained their initial university degree abroad cited family-related reasons (24%), job or economic opportunities (23%), and educational opportunities (14%).
[27] For an additional 15% (about 321,000) of foreign-born employed SESTAT respondents who hold an advanced degree, SESTAT lacks information on first bachelor’s degree, including the country in which they received their bachelor’s degree. Nearly three-fourths of these individuals received their highest degree from a foreign institution. The vast majority of foreign-born advanced degree holders for whom SESTAT contains information on first bachelor’s degree and who received their advanced degree abroad also received their initial university education abroad. It is therefore highly likely that a significant portion of the group for whom SESTAT is missing first bachelor’s degree information also received this degree abroad.
[28] For all types of temporary work visas, the actual number of individuals using them is less than the number issued. For example, some individuals may have job offers from employers in more than one country and may choose not to foreclose any options until a visa is certain.
[29] This question is part of the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which is administered to individuals receiving research doctoral degrees from all accredited U.S. institutions. For information on the SED, see http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvydoctorates/. The information on plan to stay or definite commitment to stay reflects intentions within the year after graduation as reported by the doctorate recipient around the graduation date. As such, any changes in intentions after survey completion are not captured.
[30] Many foreign recipients of U.S. doctorates who report that they plan to stay in the United States the year after graduation may do so using their student (F-1) visa and never obtain a new visa that would permit a longer stay. Student visas permit an additional 12-month stay in the United States after graduation if a student applies for optional practical training (OPT). OPT refers to paid or unpaid work that is performed at least 20 hours a week and that is related to a student’s field of study. Starting in April 2008, those earning a degree in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields could apply for an extension of their OPT to a total of 29 months. Data from the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System show that 75.6% of students with F-1 visas completing a doctorate in any field between 2004 and 2009 had applied for OPT.
[31] Tax data that are used for estimating stay rates are reported by tax authorities in aggregate forms for groups of individuals in order to protect confidentiality of individual tax payers.
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