VOICES: Help wanted: More bright minds in Dayton

Bad news first: Ohio is depleting its most valuable resource. Not natural resources. Not investment capital. Not even the companies that put those resources and capital to work. Ohio’s people have always been and always will be the state’s greatest resource, but too many of those people are leaving.

The good news: Ohio can work to reverse that trend and attract more people, more talent to live and work here. There are several ways to do that, of course, but here’s one way.

State policymakers can collaborate with federal policymakers to create a system of state-based visas to allow for more high-skilled immigrants who want to work, invent, and invest themselves in Ohio. More people, more creative minds, more motivated inventors — and more stories like the Wright brothers in Dayton.

Dayton has a rich history as an innovation leader — once boasting the most patents per-person in the country. Skilled immigrants tend to hold patents at astonishingly high rates, so increasing skilled immigration can help restore that reputation. As economist Adam Millsap, a Dayton native, argues, prosperity does not come from attracting corporate headquarters, but rather from creating fertile ground for entrepreneurship where people can experiment and start new businesses of their own.

But Uncle Sam stands in the way. Currently, the United States immigration policy is controlled from Washington with very little input from state and local leaders who have a better sense of what their workforces and employers need. Federal bureaucrats cap the number of high-skilled immigrant visas and apportion them by random lottery with virtually no regard for where those high-skilled immigrant lottery winners might choose to live and work. Washington has it backwards, as usual.

Regionalized immigration proposals, such as a state-based skilled-visa system, would increase the number of skilled workers in the states and industries that actually need them. And it would empower states to help Washington tailor the sorts of economic immigration rules needed to attract the additional international talent and contributors that states want.

Once upon a time, America attracted the best and brightest from around the world as other countries imposed oppressive domestic policies, closed their borders, and made themselves generally unattractive to workers and entrepreneurs. But America’s allies and competitors have learned their lesson and taken a page out of the U.S. playbook.

Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom are implementing new and innovative policies to attract workers trained in the United States. As a part of its newly unveiled Tech Talent Strategy, Canada announced “aggressive” actions to lure high-skilled immigrants that would otherwise prefer to live and work in the United States. Japan has reformed trainee programs to attract temporary immigrants. And South Korea is fast-tracking citizenship for high-skilled immigrants and encouraging regional approaches for areas plagued by population decline— just like Dayton and other cities in the heartland— while the United States sits still.

And then there’s China. The CCP has been scouring the world for talent, poaching from its Asian neighbors, and enflaming political and military tensions in the process. Cracking down on U.S. citizens working in China’s semiconductor manufacturing plants, the United States, meanwhile, shuns high-skilled immigrants at home, leaving their entry to chance, and making it easier for China and other international competition to sap America’s entrepreneurial strength and advantage.

The U.S. continues to educate, train, and equip its own workforce for the digital 21st century—as it should and must—but that training costs money. Often, taxpayer money. And countries that have opened their doors to American-trained and -educated workers and inventors are reaping the benefits of that taxpayer investment and gaining a significant labor market advantage.

A state-based visa program would take some of that advantage and investment back by allowing states to work with Washington to bring high-skilled, foreign-trained, internationally-educated workers here—without having to pay for their training, education, or experience. Such a program would help cities like Dayton reassert themselves on the global economic stage by replenishing its most precious resource, its people.

After all, innovation is rarely ever about the invention itself. The important thing is the person, the mind, the heart and soul behind the invention that makes it all possible.

Logan Kolas is an economic policy analyst with The Buckeye Institute’s Economic Research Center and the author of “Ohio’s Global Fight for Talent.”

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