Nearly every 2024 Republican presidential candidate has made competitiveness, particularly with China, a key component of their campaign. The urgency of the issue resonates with voters — over 80 percent of Americans view economic competition with China as a somewhat or very serious problem for the U.S. If the candidates want to address those concerns and compete effectively, workforce development and retention must be at the heart of their strategy.

As President Xi Jinping opened the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, he emphasized the role of human capital in global rivalry. He revealed that he intends to win the race for innovation by relying on talent as his primary resource. He says, “No effort should be spared[…] in the endeavor to bring together the best and the brightest from all fields for the cause of the Party.” 

China is one of many countries recognizing the tremendous power and potential of human capital. The European Union, Russia, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among others, have dedicated themselves to the global competition for talent and have been carefully strategizing on how they intend to win it. The United States has maintained a passive lead thus far, but it is dwindling as political inaction stalls us while our competition provides more enticing opportunities and visa pathways for sought-after talent. 

Here is a high-level roadmap for advancing our lead in the global competition for talent – the key to our ongoing innovative, technological, and economic prosperity. Pursuing the three priorities outlined below is our best chance at ensuring continued success.   

The U.S. must leverage the capabilities of the workforce that is already here.

Before looking for talent elsewhere, we must capitalize on the skills our workforce already has by adequately recognizing credentials earned abroad. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, our healthcare workforce was stretched thin, battling burnout and fatigue. An estimated 263,000 immigrant health professionals were underutilized, out of work, or in jobs with significantly fewer educational requirements. 

Underutilization is prominent in many industries but is most acute in occupations requiring licensure to practice. Recognizing the value of credentials earned abroad and their ability to expedite the workforce integration of immigrants is crucial to our advancement. Several states have already taken steps toward better credential recognition, but much more needs to be done. In Washington state, the licensure of just 10 international medical graduates resulted in the care of 20,000 Washington residents. On a national scale, the impacts could be even more significant.

Governments at all levels must also invest in programs that upskill and reskill our workforce, both native and foreign-born. Corporations have been primarily driving national upskilling efforts thus far, focusing on developing the skills of their staff to meet the evolving needs of technological innovation. Seventy percent of companies that invested in upskilling reported a business impact greater than or equal to their initial investment. The payoff on a macro level could be even more significant.  

Reskilling the un- or under-employed population in the U.S. could help to address the mismatch between the requirements of the national labor demand and the qualifications of the national labor supply. American industries are clamoring for workers with the skills they need to grow, yet there’s a bounty of talent in the U.S. sitting on the sidelines. 

Capitalizing on that potential by recognizing those with existing credentials and upskilling those without could turbocharge national productivity. 

The U.S. must prevent the loss of talent we already have. 

Retaining immigrant groups who have a proven record of positive economic contributions is essential. DACA recipients, for example, have higher educational attainment and labor force participation levels than the general U.S. population. Losing nearly 600,000 young people with education and work experience would devastate our labor market and competitiveness. However, Congressional action that gives them legal status and work authorization could prevent this loss and allow them to continue contributing to our economy for decades to come. 

We must also retain valuable international graduates of U.S. universities as they represent the majority of graduates in several disciplines crucial to our technological advancement. In the U.S., two-thirds of graduate students in artificial intelligence-related programs are foreign-born, as are about 80 percent of graduate students in electrical engineering, petroleum engineering, and computer science. 

While initial post-graduation retention rates are rather high given the accessibility of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) temporary employment authorization program, retention rates drop after the first few years as these highly skilled graduates face country caps, visa lotteries, and other administrative barriers. Administrative and Congressional action aimed at retaining these graduates could ensure that the U.S. does not lose the talent we already have, even as other countries are actively working to recruit them from us. 

The U.S. must provide ample, accessible, and attractive visa pathways to recruit the talent we need from abroad. 

We must update the parameters of the current immigration system to ensure it reflects our current market needs. Many limitations imposed on our immigration system, including per-country caps and visa allocations, were set decades ago. Even programmatic regulations designed to be responsive to labor market needs, such as the list of shortage occupations designated under Schedule A, have not been updated in years. Updating these parameters to reflect our current needs would allow us to be more intentional in recruiting the talent we need most. 

In addition to modernizing the existing infrastructure, we must create new pathways that welcome individuals who wish to invest in the U.S. economy. China, Canada, Australia, the UK, and several EU member-states offer robust visa pathways for entrepreneurs seeking to start innovative companies within their borders. Comparatively, the barriers to entry for would-be entrepreneurs are substantial in the U.S., forcing us to miss out on innovative and economic opportunities

Immigrant entrepreneurs are already responsible for several billion-dollar companies within the U.S., and across the economy, they regularly create jobs for native populations. If the U.S. does not provide a reliable pathway for these individuals to start their businesses here, they will likely pursue opportunities elsewhere. 

While some of the changes mentioned above would require overcoming decades of political stalemate, even incremental changes to the existing infrastructure would be effective strategies for protecting American interests. At a time when our competitive edge is at risk, effectively attracting, retaining, and maximizing the potential of our talent is more critical to our success than ever.