VOICES: Highly skilled immigrants augment Ohio’s technology workforce

We’ve grown increasingly reliant on technology in our everyday lives, a fact that was brought into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses were forced to shift to a remote workforce. In a matter of weeks, we transformed our homes into workspaces and relied on technology to help us connect with coworkers, customers, and clients. But it wasn’t just those of us with desk jobs; the service industry also turned to technology to automate services and reduce in-person contact for their customers. Even K-12 schools across the country turned to remote schooling, depending largely on web-based video technology to help kids finish the school year.

All of these changes were only possible because of one thing: technology. Ohio’s need for strong and reliable technology has never been greater, which is why it is more important than ever to be a leader in technological innovation and in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Establishing Ohio as a leader in the technology industry will require a sizable and highly skilled, responsive group of workers to meet our needs. To be a true leader in technological innovation, we will also need to apply that innovative mindset to how we approach our workforce needs. Ohio has made great strides in retooling our education system to prepare our citizens for the STEM industry, and we should continue to bolster the field by attracting and retaining global high skilled talent to support our current workforce and supplement the jobs unfilled by U.S.-born Ohioans.

Immigrants are already playing an outsize role in helping our economy meet the growing technological needs of our workforce by filling critical STEM positions. Recently released research from New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization, found that immigrants account for just 4.6 percent of the population in Ohio, but make up 20.7 percent of workers in the computers systems design and related services industry, 17.8 percent of software developers, and 7.1 percent of computer systems analysts. New Ohioans are contributing to our job growth in the state and currently account for 10 percent of the STEM entrepreneurs in Ohio.

While the numbers are encouraging, our country’s outdated immigration system has significantly hindered Ohio’s ability to attract and retain highly skilled immigrant workers despite significant workforce shortages. The H-1B visa program — which requires an employer to certify that the immigrant will not take a job away from a U.S. citizen before the process begins — is the primary source of highly skilled immigrants. The application travels through a maze of federal agencies before being approved or denied. In 2015, the Ohio H-1B denial rate of initial applications was 5.7 percent. By 2018, it had increased to 24.8 percent. While the rate dropped to 13.8 percent in 2020, these denials are preventing essential STEM jobs from being filled in Ohio; our state has nearly 14 open STEM job postings for every one unemployed STEM worker, according to New American Economy.

The significant number of unfilled STEM jobs, as well as the challenges associated with attracting and retaining skilled global talent in the technology field, is why OhioX joined nearly 70 other businesses and associations in Ohio Business for Immigration Solutions (OBIS), a statewide coalition to advocate for common sense immigration reforms that improve Ohio’s economy and workforce. Ohio needs a modernized immigration system built to meet today’s workforce needs. The data is clear: in order to weather future crises with the technology we all depend on, it is imperative that we welcome immigrants.

Naveed H. Iqbal, PhD, is the founder & CEO of Dolr.

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