House Republican Leader Eric Cantor told a gathering of chief executive officers and university leaders that the U.S. must grant visas to skilled workers from overseas more quickly to halt an “exodus” from the country.
“We have an alarming rate of exodus, if you will, of foreign nationals in this country who come here to attend your universities and then find it too difficult to stay here,” Cantor, of Virginia, said at the event sponsored by Harvard University and the Business Roundtable and hosted by Bloomberg News. “We intend to try and address that.”
Cantor stopped short of pledging to move to pass the visa issue alone instead of as part of a broader immigration overhaul as many lawmakers want. A partial bill emerged as the favored idea of the five CEOs and seven university leaders during the roundtable discussion in Washington earlier this morning.
“There are jobs today that are open because we don’t have the skilled workforce here,” said Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont Co. “If we want to continue to create economic growth we have to fill those jobs with the best and the brightest no matter where they come from.”
The corporate quest for more immigration to meet workforce needs has slowed to a crawl in Washington, with the public more focused on the country’s estimated 10 million illegal immigrants. That drew frustration from the group at the “Innovation and the Economy” event today.
“We have a crisis,” said Bill Green, chairman of the consulting firm Accenture Plc. “The sausage-making process of getting an outcome, I think, puts us at a huge disadvantage.”
Green challenged John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s science adviser, to get the White House to take “smaller bites” at the issue. Holdren told the group that Obama administration officials “would like to get the high-tech part done if we can.”
The issue is economic because workers with essential skills are leaving the U.S. and contributing to the competition, the executives and university leaders said. Even though there’s broad agreement on cutting the wait time for such workers to get legal status in the U.S., no one wants to pass only that aspect, said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable.
“The problem politically is that’s the loss leader on the comprehensive bill, and nobody will let it loose,” said Engler, whose Washington group represents the country’s top CEOs. “There’s a big deal that could be cut,” though a proposal would have to “come from outside,” he said.
Republicans who control the House say border security must improve before other immigration-law changes are considered. At the same time, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and some other Republicans say workers who come to the U.S. from other countries can crowd out Americans seeking jobs in the troubled economy.
The U.S. has lost 6.8 million jobs since the beginning of the last recession in December 2007, and 1.7 million since Obama took office in January 2009. The unemployment rate was 9.1 percent in August, and employers added no net new jobs.
On the other side are forces pushing for a path to citizenship for the undocumented workers already in the U.S. Engler said he believes a guest-worker program has to be part of any deal and that would relieve pressure on the border.
“It’s not unanimous,” Cantor said of the feelings in Congress on changing immigration laws.
No Tax Revamp
Cantor also told the group he doesn’t expect a special congressional committee, charged with finding $1.5 trillion in budget savings by Nov. 23, to propose a broad revamp of the tax code. While there isn’t enough time for such comprehensive work, the group may be able to “lay the groundwork” for later legislation, Cantor said.
The No. 2 Republican in the House also said he understands the concerns voiced by Tim Solso, CEO of diesel truck engine maker Cummins Inc., about legislation that would punish China for an undervalued currency. Cantor said Obama should take a position on the issue.
“I share the concern about unintended consequences,” Cantor said. “Obviously, there is a great political upside to beating up on a competitor.”
The group emphasized the importance of basic research, noting that it is a small part of the U.S. federal budget yet essential to economic revival. The University of Iowa sees a return on investment of as much as 5-to-1 on research, said Sally Mason, president of the university in Iowa City, Iowa.
“I challenge you to find investments today that are giving you that kind of return,” Mason said. “We’re responsible for 1 in 30 jobs in Iowa. It’s a compelling story in every state.”
Eli Lilly & Co., an Indianapolis-based maker of the antidepressant Prozac, depends on universities for basic research while facing pressure from Wall Street to develop the latest new product, said CEO John Lechleiter.
“They say, ‘where are all the new medicines?’” Lechleiter said. “That’s a short-term focus, but obviously it’s a pressure that we all feel.”
The need for an increased focus on science, math and engineering education was also a common theme. Cummins plans to hire 7,000 engineers in coming years, Solso said. Solso said his company, based in Columbus, Indiana, depends on nearby Purdue University to help with the supply.
Wilmington, Delaware-based chemical maker DuPont also plans to hire thousands of engineers, said Kullman. “Young kids and their parents today have no idea” about the career possibilities in engineering, she said.
Patent Funding Needed
The roundtable’s participants also said the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office needs to be fully funded to help spur innovation, and therefore jobs. They said they’re concerned that Congress may not follow through on a pledge to give the office more control over its funding.
“One of the great impediments to an effective PTO is the funding to just get the people power in place and move things through the system,” said Susan Hockfield, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
--With assistance from Laura Litvan, Susan Decker and Eric Engleman in Washington. Editors: Mark McQuillan, Robin Meszoly
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