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
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
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
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
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. 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.
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.
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.
The number of temporary work visas issued for high-skill workers provides an indication of new immigrant workers entering the U.S. labor force. After several years of growth, the largest classes of these temporary visas declined during the recent economic downturn (figure
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
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
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
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.
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. These responses provide estimates of short-term stay rates.
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
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
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
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
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
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. 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
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
The trends in the 5-year stay rates vary across source countries (table
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.
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:
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.