High-tech Careers

By Jim Specht
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 7, Number 3 (Spring 1997)
Issue theme: "Restraining the American brain"

The high-tech companies that hire hundreds of foreign workers each year usually don't have to travel any farther than the nearest college town to find them.

"We don't really go looking for foreign scientists, just the best young graduates available," said Coeta Chambers, hiring and recruitment attorney for computer chip maker Intel Corp., which hired 300 foreign workers in 1994. "But way over 50 percent of graduate students in these fields are foreign, so its not surprising that we will find some of them among the best."

Jim Specht is a staff writer with Gannett News Service. 1996, reprinted by permission. For the past ten years, the number of foreign students in science and engineering doctoral programs has been growing steadily. In fact, foreigners have been awarded 54 percent of the science Ph.D.s in America since 1993.

And as more foreign students graduate from United States science programs, more of them are going to work at the universities as faculty and researchers.

A Gannett News Service computer analysis of more than one million government files found that universities are among the top recruiters for both permanent and temporary foreign workers. Three of the top five sponsors of permanent job-based immigrants over the past eight years were University of California, University of Texas and the State University of New York.

A System Out of Control

The ease with which foreign students can gain a temporary work visa and then a permanent one has federal regulators warning that the system may be out of control.

And critics worry that America will become dependent on foreigners to drive its technological edge - or worse yet, that those foreign students will take their expertise home.

In addition, many of these foreigners work in research almost entirely funded by state and federal grants and at state-funded universities.

"The American taxpayer is supporting extremely expensive research universities whose main educational purpose is to train students from abroad," David Goodstein, vice-provost of the California Institute of Tech-nology wrote in The American Scholar.

Goodstein wrote that although Congress and the public don't seem to have noticed, "while largely ignoring our own students, we are putting our money and best talent into training our competitors."

A Small Minority

on Campus

But other university officials are quick to point out that foreign students, researchers and professors still make up a small minority of the total on campus.

"We're talking about universities that have thousands of people on the payroll, and usually the foreign faculty might be in the hundreds at most," said Mike Aitken, director of government relations for the College and University Personnel Association.

The news service's analysis of Labor Department and Immi-gration and Naturalization Service files found that universities have sponsored more than 15,000 professors and researchers for permanent immigration since 1988. They also received Labor Department approval for more than 70,000 temporary positions lasting six years or less.

That compares with an esti-mated 700,000 faculty positions and 2.3 million employees overall at state colleges and universities across the country, Aitken said.

Still, those foreigners are beginning to dominate the science and engineering fields, critics say.

"Professors love these foreign graduate students and research assistants because they aren't as focused on their own futures as U.S. students, and business loves the system because they have a bigger pool to pick from," said Kevin Aylesworth, a 1989 physics Ph.D. who now works for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "But you wonder what we are doing to the next generation of people looking to make science a career. They see that foreign competition and they'll head for medicine or law."

A Loss to Research


But some science educators warn that U.S. research pro-grams would suffer an irreplaceable loss if foreign students were restricted from moving on to become researchers and faculty.

"Education and research is pretty much a global activity these days, and you can't restrict yourself to national boundaries if you are going to find the best people," said George Carignan, associate dean of engineering at the University of Michigan. "It's not going to do us any good if the best students in the world begin to decide to go to the University of Taiwan instead."

A team of mostly Chinese students under mechanical engineering professor Sam Wu provided the research that helped Detroit close the gap with the Japanese on automobile body design, Carignan said. A group of mostly French researchers is working at the University of Michigan on laser technology that could allow surgeons to cut one cell at a time.

The students who come to the United States are the top graduates of the top universities in their home countries, said Gagan Agawal, 26, a native of India who just completed a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland and has been hired by the computer science department at the State University of Delaware.

"I wanted to do research on some of the newest high-end [computer] systems - and the only place to do that is in the United States."

Building a

Multicultural Base

Federal officials who oversee science programs say the answer is not to limit access to foreign students and researchers, but to strengthen the ability of U.S. students to compete with them - here and abroad.

"If we're honest, we have to recognize that right now foreign students are harder working, hungrier and willing to train themselves in a multicultural way. They learn about how to succeed in the United States, not just how to succeed in science," said Rep. George Brown, D-CA, the senior Democrat on the House Science Committee.

"We haven't the vaguest idea about how to succeed in the Japanese culture or the Indian culture.

"For that reason, it's impera-tive that we encourage many of these foreign students to become American citizens, to give us that multicultural base," Brown said.

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