The Innovation Economy Needs Food for Thought

Robert Hoffman Contributor
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While Americans sit down for a sumptuous Thanksgiving meal, a grand policy buffet is being planned for 2013: comprehensive immigration reform. However, several policy chefs have cooked up some tantalizing appetizers to feed an innovation economy starving for skilled talent.

These appetizers — proposals to bring a semblance of fairness to talented immigrants, and provide additional employer green cards to help US employers recruit and retain job-creating talent — will make the innovation economy even hungrier for a comprehensive policy meal and not, as some suggest, spoil their reform appetite.

The last two major immigration overhauls staged by Congress were in 1986 and 1990. At that time, most everyone expected the reformed system would contribute satisfactorily to the economic health of the country, particularly the adolescent innovation economy. However, with an explosion of new tech innovations, businesses and industries in the 1990s, the innovation economy has grown beyond the most optimistic of predictions.

Today, the innovation economy is essential to US economic vitality and success. However, our current workforce development policies — education, job-training, higher education, and immigration — are leaving the innovation economy malnourished.  Imagine arriving at a Thanksgiving dinner only to find your portions are the size of a TV dinner. Tastes great, but less filling. You’re unsatisfied.

That’s what we’re seeing in the innovation economy. Literally tens of thousands of high-skilled jobs in the US are unfilled. The latest tech job openings posted on dice.com, as of this writing, exceed 83,000. The site WeHireAmerica.jobs lists more than 275,000 job openings. These vacant jobs represent collective frustration for an innovation economy hungry for talent, a US economy hungry for renewal, and a US government hungry for tax revenue.

As I noted in a prior column, if the innovation economy can’t satisfy its talent appetite in the US, it will look elsewhere. Good for the innovation economy, which has no national boundaries. Not good, however, for the US economy.

The just-concluded political season made planning a comprehensive immigration reform buffet impossible, but several leading policy chefs developed some very desirable appetizers for 2012.  Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Mike Lee cooked up legislation to repeal the annual “per country” caps on green cards sponsored by employers. Ending this troublesome feature in our immigration system would equitably balance waiting periods for employer-sponsored green card applicants, and reduce what amounts to immigration indigestion for the innovation economy. The House of Representatives approved this reform in December, and Senators Schumer and Lee have spent the past year trying to make this proposal palatable to their Senate colleagues.

Next week, the House is expected to send to the Senate an even more tantalizing appetizer:  a bill sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith to provide an additional 50,000 green cards for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) masters and PhD graduates of US colleges and universities. Representatives Zoe Lofgren and (Senator-elect) Jeff Flake, as well as Senator John Cornyn, have offered similar recipes.

All of this sounds good to a clearly talent-hungry innovation economy, but now there’s talk of a full-scale immigration policy feast in 2013 to fully nourish the innovation economy. As a result, some are questioning whether it makes sense to feed the innovation economy the per country and STEM visa appetizers currently pending in Congress. Some policymakers now find themselves in the vexing position many of us confront on Thanksgiving Day: Do you feed your guests something that could spoil their appetite for the bigger meal that lies ahead?

It’s a far simpler question for the policymaker.  First, feeding the innovation economy plates of per country and STEM visas won’t quell the hunger pangs the innovation economy has for talent. Far more additional servings of reforms are needed in permanent and temporary visa policies to satisfy the innovation economy’s near term appetite, while longer-term reforms in immigration, job-training and STEM education will be essential if the innovation economy is to continue to be nourished in a way that enables it to remain healthy and grow even stronger.

Second, this is not the first time we have heard the clattering in the policy kitchen in anticipation of a grand immigration reform buffet. Congress tried and failed to stage such an event in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. Comprehensive immigration reform remains a policy meal of dreams, and the innovation economy continues to live off its TV dinner-size portions.

No doubt, the House and Senate have an extremely talented and creative set of policy chefs that can pull off a grand banquet, but the past being prologue, there is uncertainty. If these policy chefs can work together to produce the per country and STEM appetizers in December, they will provide not just some much-needed nourishment to the innovation and US economies, but also demonstrate the skills needed to finally pull off a comprehensive reform meal that revitalizes innovation, competitiveness, investment and job creation for the US economy. That would be something Americans can be thankful for.

Robert Hoffman is Senior Vice President of Government Relations at the Information Technology Industry Council. Over a 25-year period, Robert has been a cook in the policy kitchens of four US Senators, the Governor of California, and two Fortune 500 enterprises. 

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Robert Hoffman