I’ve written many times about the need to fix our high-skilled visa system. But my concern today feels uniquely pressing. Over the last year, our nation has seen wildfires, heatwaves, floods and hurricanes. To turn things around, we need to kick our green economy into gear. But that requires trained workers—workers we don’t have.
Analysts say that talent shortfalls could hamstring efforts to prevent climate change, delaying the rollout of new low-carbon technologies and directly leading to increases in global temperatures. In fact, by 2030, the world’s booming green economy — including the rapid growth of solar, wind, and biofuels — will spur demand for at least 7 million skilled workers beyond those expected to be available in the workforce.
The Research Triangle has enormous potential to be a leader here, especially in the realm of decarbonization. But that requires dismantling our immigration hurdles. The US isn’t doing nearly enough to persuade talented young people with advanced skills in materials sciences, computer engineering, and biotech to come here.
Our H-1B visa program, which lets businesses hire STEM graduates after they graduate, remains a literal lottery. Businesses can “buy a ticket” by applying for visas, but with almost 800,000 applicants competing for just 85,000 visa slots last year, it’s incredibly difficult for even highly skilled workers to secure the right to stay and work here.
Even after obtaining a visa, skilled workers face serious challenges. The “country cap” on green cards makes it incredibly difficult for workers from populous countries such as China and India to transition from a temporary H-1B visa to permanent residency. Backlogs mean that many workers still face a century-long wait before their application is considered, effectively condemning them to a lifetime in temporary status.
Naturally, such hurdles make workers think twice about coming to America to study, or about trying to stay here to work after graduating. Countries such as Finland are actively recruiting thousands of Indian STEM workers to help build their green economy, while Canada is also promoting green job opportunities for skilled immigrants. In the US, by contrast, calls for skilled-visa reform — or even a dedicated cleantech talent pipeline — have fallen on deaf ears.
If we play our cards right, the green transition could create millions of jobs for American workers over the next decade. Already, in just the first six months after President Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, US businesses announced the creation of over 100,000 new clean energy jobs. Upskilling existing US workers to serve the needs of these growing businesses will be a major driver of wealth in communities all over our country, including right here in North Carolina. But upskilling alone isn’t enough. Disruptive new businesses in spaces like advanced manufacturing, renewable energy, and cleantech must be able to hire the highly educated researchers, coders, and engineering talent they need.
This isn’t just about individual companies but our national economy. America’s ability to attract skilled STEM workers and drive innovation is critical to maintaining our global cleantech competitiveness. The US still has a chance to capture a substantial portion of the global market in fast-growing cleantech fields like EV battery manufacturing, clean hydrogen production, and plant-based meat substitutes. But we only do this by connecting the dots between our incredible research facilities, vibrant private-sector innovators and global talent.
We must get serious about closing the green jobs gap in 2024. Because when it comes to our green economy, high skilled visa reform isn’t just a “nice-to-have.” It’s existential.
Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a council member at large for the Town of Morrisville and an opinion writer for WRAL Tech Wire. He served on the Board of the New American Economy, now the American Immigration Council, and on the NC League of Municipalities Race and Equity Task Force.