LANSING, Mich. — In a state that has long suffered from one of the nation’s highest jobless rates, new GOP Gov. Rick Snyder wants to import — literally — fresh competition for some of the best job openings the state has to offer.
Mr. Snyder, a newbie politician but an experienced entrepreneur, is looking overseas to incubate a stronger economic culture by actively seeking highly skilled immigrants to work and create businesses in his state, which has been slammed in recent decades by job losses in its traditional manufacturing base.
Spurred by data that show the value that foreign-born engineers, scientists and cutting-edge tech savants bring to new U.S. business startups — half of those in Silicon Valley were begun by immigrants — the new Republican governor has created his Global Michigan initiative.
“It’s a job generator in the sense if you get foreign nationals coming to be entrepreneurs and innovators, in a lot of cases they’ll end up partnering with people we already have here and establish a business,” Mr. Snyder said after introducing the program in his first State of the State speech. “It helps reduce unemployment for all of us by putting the right people in the process.”
While immigration remains primarily a federal issue, Michigan’s global initiative has formed outreach committees to create a friendlier climate for immigrants.
The committees focus on such areas as retaining solid international students and helping connect them with future in-state employers, assisting foreign nationals who want to invest in Michigan businesses with visas and locating foreign-born residents who may be underemployed but working in the U.S. to find more sustainable job opportunities within the state.
The program also is invested in stanching Michigan’s brain drain, encouraging residents who may have moved away from the economically struggling state as its proud blue-collar culture ebbed to return to the state as better job opportunities are available.
Mr. Snyder, who created such a program during his corporate years working in Ann Arbor, wants Michigan’s best and brightest to be retained in state and hopes those abroad with an idea and a dream will relocate where their initiatives are much needed and will be supported.
“The record on highly skilled immigrants is that they are job creators when they come to the U.S.,” said Daniel Griswold, who directs the Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in Washington.
He called Mr. Snyder’s idea “innovative policy thinking,” noting that plenty of governors will talk about exporting more and attracting foreign investment to their states, but more should be considering the value of immigration to spur growth.
“When you have a highly skilled person, it creates employment opportunities for people in support positions,” he said. “They don’t replace American workers; they complement American workers, helping U.S. companies create new products, reach new markets, expand production. I think Gov. Snyder is on to something important.”
In Michigan, Dow Chemical, Meijer and Masco were started by immigrants. Foreign-student interest in the state is also high. The University of Michigan and Michigan State University, the state’s largest schools, rank sixth and eighth respectively in the number of international students enrolled, according to a report from the Institute of International Education.
A Duke University study also found that from 1995 to 2005, a third of the state’s high-tech startups were created by foreign-born entrepreneurs, setting a strong foundation for the governor’s initiative to bloom.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights have collaborated on the governor’s plan, bringing together a broad coalition of local leaders, business associations, public and private organizations and universities to advance the initiative.
Reaction to the plan has been little criticism and much excitement from entrepreneurs looking for a supportive place to locate and existing businesses seeking an extra component that will help them expand operations, said Amy Cell, the MEDC’s senior vice president of talent enhancement.
“There will be more stability and growth opportunities for current companies,” she said. “There is also that feel-good component for people whose parents might have been immigrants who came here to work or just folks who know immigrants and have watched them succeed. It’s exciting to be working on something that is the right thing to do.”
Keeping those talented foreign-born workers and entrepreneurs in the country, however, often proves more difficult than most imagine, said Michigan State University economist Charley Ballard, who calls the governor’s idea “sensible.”
“In the U.S., we make it hard for immigrants to stay. There are lots of hoops you have to jump through, even if you are documented,” he said. “We have the best universities in the world, and people from all over come here and get trained and then we send a lot of them home. We’ve provided our competition with their next generation of scientists and engineers, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to us economically.”
Mr. Griswold, the Cato scholar, said Washington needs to get serious about reforming immigration policy to assist business growth, particularly in places such as Michigan, a state where he said “economic policy is still rooted in the first half of the 20th century and now we are in the 21st century.”
“Right now we have an absurd, self-defeating cap on H1-B visas,” he said. “While other countries around the world are doing everything to attract and retain highly skilled workers, our federal government seems to be doing everything [it] can to make them go away. Instead of starting these new companies here, they are starting them in India. Or China.
Mr. Griswold said “Gov. Snyder has the right idea, but he’s pretty limited in what he can do without the feds expanding visa and green-card laws so these workers can settle here permanently.”
Policy analysts acknowledge that some displaced Michigan workers may feel threatened by an influx of well-educated foreign workers, but they should know that with business development comes new work in manufacturing, distribution and call centers for secretaries, janitors and laborers, Ms. Cell said.
“If we can help a new company solve some of their key technical challenges and bring the right and top talent in, then they are going to grow and succeed and with that, hire all types of talent,” she added.
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