A union of technology workers in Washington state has been urging courts since 2014 to strike down the “Optional Practical Training” program available to foreign students studying at American universities. Although the union’s previous challenges failed, it recently asked the Supreme Court to review a lower court’s decision to uphold the program. The tech workers’ case hinges on the assertion that OPT threatens the livelihoods of American workers, but in reality, the data proves otherwise.
Optional practical training, or OPT, is a program that allows international graduates of U.S. universities to continue their education by pursuing a training position relevant to their studies for one year following graduation. These graduates, particularly those with in-demand STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees, are often incredibly valuable to American employers, and the practical nature of workplace experience provides an essential continuation of their academic studies.
Given the employer benefits and the complexity of STEM occupational training, STEM graduates are eligible for a training period of up to three years, compared to one-year training opportunities offered to graduates of other programs.
While all international students can take unpaid internships for the first year of training, STEM graduates requesting the two-year extension must demonstrate that they have progressed to a level worthy of compensation, meaning that they must hold a paid training position directly related to their studies. However, the idea that these trainees threaten the employment and well-being of American workers is unfounded based on the available data.
Not only are STEM OPT employers required to attest that student trainees have not replaced U.S. workers, but we can also look at industry wage data to confirm that existing workers did not suffer economic losses due to STEM OPT employment.
If STEM OPT employment hurt American workers, we would expect the wages for American STEM workers to decrease as the number of STEM trainees in the workforce increased. However, that is not the case.
Between 2014 and 2021, the number of trainees actively working under the STEM extension increased at an average rate of 19 percent per year. When adjusted to the 2023 equivalent, both the median and average hourly wage for full-time STEM employees increased an average of 5 percent per year during the same period.
In fact, the 2021 average hourly STEM wage was 36 percent higher than the 2014 average hourly STEM wage (each in 2023 dollars for comparison) despite the STEM OPT employee population being 187 percent larger.
Even when we analyzed the data through a linear regression model and controlled for inflationary changes, increases in STEM OPT employment from 2014 to 2021 were associated with increases in average wages for all U.S. STEM employees, not decreases.
While this data alone is insufficient to prove a causal relationship between increased STEM OPT employment and increased STEM wages, the upward trend of wages despite growing STEM trainee authorization numbers should assuage concerns about any detrimental effects on American workers.
The reality is that STEM OPT plays a vital role in our education system by allowing graduates of our universities to learn essential and practical skills related to their fields of study.
At the same time, it benefits American employers by serving as an evaluative term in which companies faced with limited immigration options can determine which trainees, if any, are most qualified for full employment and visa sponsorship offers.
While the STEM OPT program will not replace the need to upskill and train the American workforce, this opportunity to extend studies benefits American employers without threatening the welfare of American STEM employees and should be preserved.