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Keeping brain power in Michigan

Steve Tobocman
Steve Tobocman
URC's Plan For Retaining Michigan's Science And Engineering Talent

When students graduate from one of Michigan's universities, they often leave the state, taking their disposable incomes and their skills, expertise and knowledge with them. 

This is especially true for international students, who tend to leave the country instead of staying in Michigan and using their high-tech talent to start companies that create jobs. 

This premise is supported by Global Detroit, a study written by Steve Tobocman, the former majority floor leader of the Michigan House of Representatives and a third-generation Detroit immigrant. Tobocman found that because more international students choose to study science, engineering, technology and math, they are generating more of the patents that create high-tech firms. 

"Michigan needs more talent, period, anyone from anywhere, and that is the bottom line," says Jeff Mason, URC's executive director. The URC is now using a three year $450,000 grant from the New Economy Initiative to fund and implement the Global Detroit International Student Retention Program. The goal of the program is to keep international students in the area so their expertise will grow new businesses, create jobs and support the economy. 

Strong Support For The Student Retention Program

"The evidence is clear that advanced college degree immigrants make a tremendous difference in creating a positive economic activity environment that benefits us all," remarked Michigan's Governor Rick Snyder is his State of the State address earlier this year. The governor stated that reaching out and retaining the brain power of our international students will create a critical, positive, shift in Michigan's economy. The Global Detroit Study, released in 2010, found that only 13.7 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students are studying in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields (STEM fields) as opposed to 38.4 percent of Michigan's international students in those same concentrations.

The study also highlights empirical research done by Jennifer Hunt from McGill University and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle from Princeton using data from the National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), which collects information on registered patents and birth place. 

"Our empirical analysis of the NSCG data shows that immigrants account for 24 percent of patents, twice their share of the population, and that the skilled immigrant patenting advantage over skilled natives is entirely accounted for by immigrants' disproportionately holding degrees in science and engineering fields," say Hunt and Gauthier-Loiselle. 
The Global Detroit International Student Retention Program is the first organized effort to facilitate the retention of international students enrolled at universities in southeast Michigan. The retention program will be launched at seven of Southeast Michigan's college campuses, including University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Eastern Michigan University, University of Michigan - Dearborn, Lawrence Tech, and Oakland University.

The retention program's plan incorporates several key parts, including marketing the region to students, recruiting employers to hire international students, helping students navigate immigration barriers, and creating an international community between-universities-students-and related international organizations. 

Peter Briggs, director of the Office for International Students and Scholars at Michigan State University, has assisted thousands of international students during their years of studying in Michigan. According to Briggs, the most important aspect of the international student retention program is encouraging employers to consider graduates from foreign countries. 

"The biggest area that the committee needs to be successful in to reach their goal is in educating employers," says Briggs, who believes that Michigan's employers need to gain a global perspective in order to keep up with an evolving world economy.

Because Briggs works with international students on a daily basis, he has valuable insights into how important these highly educated students are to Michigan's economy. Their potential as entrepreneurs and innovators are invaluable, according to Briggs. 

"How do you measure the opportunity lost if the students don't stay? It's not a dollar for dollar argument, it's impossible to measure the net loss of that," he says. 

Briggs directly confronted the often popular notion that that if international students stay in Michigan, they will be taking jobs away from Americans. The Global Detroit study found that 32.8 percent of all the high technology firms created in Michigan from 1995 to 2005 have at least one immigrant founder, and international students contribute nearly $600 million to local economies annually. 

"They are not taking jobs from American workers there is not a threat. If there is a perceived threat we need to throw it out the window," says Briggs. Briggs also points out that there simply aren't enough Americans being trained in the necessary fields required to propagate Michigan's growing high-tech economy.  

The Global Detroit initiative will be working closely with its seven university partners, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, Ann Arbor Spark and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) to develop a three-year program that will ideally retain 15,000 international students at the participating universities. 

Photo of Steve Tobocman by Marvin Shaouni, originally published in Model D, February 8, 2011. 
Learn more and apply for the International Student Retention Program here.  
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