Immigration and the S&E Workforce

The industrialized nations of the world have long benefited from the inflow of foreign-born scientists and engineers and the S&E skills and knowledge they bring. In the United States, a large proportion of S&E workers are foreign born, and both the number and proportion of foreign-born S&E workers have risen over time (Table 3-21). In 2017, foreign-born individuals accounted for 30% of workers (with a bachelor’s or higher-level degree) in S&E occupations compared to less than one-fifth of the overall population (18%) and of all college graduates (17%).

Foreign-born workers in S&E occupations, by education level: 1993, 2003, 2013, and 2017

(Percent)

ACS = American Community Survey; NSCG = National Survey of College Graduates; SESTAT = Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System.

Note(s)

All college educated includes professional degree holders not broken out separately. The data from the ACS include all S&E occupations except postsecondary teachers of S&E because these occupations are not separately identifiable in the ACS data files.

Source(s)

Census Bureau, ACS, Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS); National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, SESTAT and NSCG.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Characteristics of Foreign-Born Scientists and Engineers

Foreign-born workers employed in S&E occupations tend to have higher levels of education than those born in the United States. Among individuals employed in S&E occupations, 17% of foreign-born workers have a doctorate, compared to 9% of U.S. native-born individuals in these occupations. In most S&E occupations, the higher the degree level, the greater the proportion of the workforce who are foreign born (Figure 3-24). In 2017, foreign-born S&E doctorate holders comprised nearly a third of the U.S.-trained academic doctoral workforce (30%) (Table S3-21). In terms of demographic groups, Asians were a greater percentage (60%) of foreign-born workers in S&E occupations relative to 3% of U.S. native-born workers in S&E occupations. The opposite was true for whites who were a lower percentage (24%) of foreign-born workers in S&E occupations relative to 82% of native-born workers in these occupations (Table S3-22).

Foreign-born scientists and engineers employed in S&E occupations, by highest degree level and broad S&E occupational category: 2017

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

In 2017, half of the foreign-born individuals in the United States with an S&E highest degree were from Asia, with India (23%) and China (10%) as the leading countries of origin (Figure 3-25). For the foreign-born holders of S&E doctorates, however, China provided a higher proportion (24%) than India (15%) (Figure 3-25). These patterns by source region and country for foreign-born S&E highest degree holders in the United States have been stable since at least 2003.

Foreign-born individuals with highest degree in S&E living in the United States, by place of birth: 2017

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

New Foreign-Born Workers

The number of temporary work visas issued for high-skill workers, such as researchers, faculty and scholars, or doctorate holders, for example, provides an indication of how many new immigrant workers are entering the U.S. labor force. After several years of growth, the largest classes of these temporary visas declined during the 2007–09 economic downturn and then increased post-recession (Figure 3-26). H-1B visas account for a significant proportion of foreign-born, high-skill workers employed by U.S. firms on temporary visas. In 2017, the United States issued about 179,000 H-1B visas, up 63% from the recent low in 2009 (110,000). The majority of H-1B visa recipients work in S&E or S&E-related occupations with computer-related occupations accounting for 62% of new H-1B visas issued in FY 2017 (DHS/USCIS FY17 H-1B Workers: Table 8A). The total number of newly initiated H-1B visas for workers in computer-related fields has increased substantially since 2010, following a steep decline between 2008 and 2009 during the economic downturn (DHS/USCIS 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017). H-1B visa recipients tend to possess a bachelor’s or higher-level degree (DHS/USCIS FY17 H-1B Workers: Table 7). In FY 2017, 63% of new H-1B visa recipients were from India, and 14% were from China (DHS/USCIS FY17 H-1B Workers: Table 4A).

Temporary work visas issued in categories with many high-skill workers: FYs 1991–2017

Note(s)

J-1 exchange visitor visa is used for many different skill levels.

Source(s)

U.S. Department of State, Nonimmigrant Visa Issuances by Visa Class and by Nationality, and Nonimmigrant Visas by Individual Class of Admission.

Science and Engineering Indicators

“Stay Rates” of U.S. S&E Doctorate Recipients

Most foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates remain in the United States for subsequent employment. Among temporary visa holders who received their S&E doctoral degrees approximately 5 and 10 years prior to 2017, nearly three-quarters remained in the United States in 2017—71% and 72%, respectively (Figure 3-27). These rates are referred to as “stay rates” and indicate the degree to which foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates enter and remain in the U.S. workforce to pursue their careers.

Stay rates for U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients with temporary visas at graduation: 2001–17

Note(s)

Data are available for odd-numbered years only.

Source(s)

Finn M, Stay Rates of Foreign Doctoral Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2011, Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (2001–11); National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 2013–17.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Stay rates vary by place of citizenship. Students from China and India, the two largest source countries for U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients on temporary visas, have relatively high stay rates (Table 3-22). Stay rates also vary somewhat by field of degree: doctoral recipients in the social sciences have lower stay rates than other broad S&E fields of study (Table 3-23).

Temporary visa holders receiving S&E doctorates in 2011–13 and 2006–08 who were in the United States in 2017, by region, country, or economy of citizenship at time of degree

(Number and percent)
Note(s)

Detail may not add to total because of rounding.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Temporary visa holders receiving S&E doctorates in 2011–13 and 2006–08 who were in the United States in 2017, by S&E degree field

(Number and percent)
Note(s)

Detail may not add to total because of rounding.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 2017.

Science and Engineering Indicators

The 5- and 10-year stay rates have increased since 2001, with a temporary decline during the economic recession of 2007–09 (Figure 3-27). These rates are calculated every 2 years for the individuals graduating 5 and 10 years earlier, respectively. Although the overall trend was upward, this varied by country of citizenship at the time of degree. In particular, the two largest source countries for S&E doctorates, China and India, saw a decline in their respective 5-year stay rates from 93% and 90% in 2003 to 84% and 85% in 2013; the rates remained stable from 2013 through 2017 (Table S3-23). The 5-year stay rate for Europe increased from 63% in 2003 to 71% in 2017. South Korea increased from 36% in 2003 to 57% in 2017.

In addition to 5-year and 10-year stay rates, there are data on the period immediately after graduation, a pivotal point that can substantially affect long-term career trajectories. At the time that they receive their doctorates, foreign-born students (including those on temporary and permanent visas) at U.S. universities report whether they intend to stay in the United States and whether they have a firm offer to work in the United States (either a postdoc or a non-postdoc job) the following year. Consistent with 5-year and 10-year stay rates, most foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates (including those on temporary and permanent visas) plan to stay in the United States immediately after graduation (Table S3-24). In the 2014 to 2017 graduating cohort, 77% of foreign-born noncitizen recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates planned to stay in the United States, and 46% had either accepted an offer of a postdoc or other employment or were continuing employment in the United States. The overall rising trend over time and the trends by degree fields largely follow those of 5-and 10-year stay rates (Table S3-24). For information on international labor force estimates, see sidebar Global S&E Labor Force.

Global S&E Labor Force