STEM Sells: But the U.S. Economy Depends on the Arts and Humanities Too

STEM Sells: But the U.S. Economy Depends on the Arts and Humanities Too

Increasing the number of immigrant and non-immigrant visas available to highly-skilled workers – particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – currently appears to be the least controversial and most bipartisan aspect of the various immigration reform proposals being discussed, debated, and leaked to the public, even if the discussion about how to increase the number of STEM visas remains unclear. If certain U.S. industries – particularly tech industries that could easily pull the plug and set up shop elsewhere – contend that they cannot hire enough qualified workers because of visa limits, who is to argue in response that the U.S. does not need more engineers and rocket scientists? Everyone can get behind increasing STEM jobs. However, when we propose stapling a green card only to those diplomas earned in STEM fields, and when visas available to artists, writers, educators, historians, and musicians are limited to those who demonstrate “extraordinary” ability in their field, we risk losing the contributions of those who can demonstrate only “high skill” in non-STEM fields. We risk the imbalance that comes with planning to “overbuild” in one area only.

The focus on highly-skilled STEM workers, to the exclusion of those highly skilled in the arts and humanities, misses a critical component of a lasting healthy economy: across a range of industries, long-term career success requires both in-depth knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position and a broad range of skills and knowledge that apply to a range of fields and positions. A 2009 survey of more than 300 employers (conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities) demonstrates that a high percentage of employers want colleges and universities to place more emphasis on written and oral communication (89%), critical thinking and analytic reasoning (81%), complex problem solving (75%), teamwork skills in diverse groups (71%), creativity and innovation (70%), information literacy (68%), and quantitative reasoning (63%) – the skills that are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education.

There is no doubt that American culture benefits from the contributions of those foreign-born workers educated and skilled in the arts and humanities, but the U.S. economy benefits as well, not only in the arts and entertainment industries, but even in STEM fields. In a September 21, 2011 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Norm Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin, argued that the long-term success of the U.S. economy requires those educated in historical literacy: “In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers — but the factor that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.”

In an acceptance speech at the Academy Awards in 1988, the Austrian-born screenwriter, producer, filmmaker, artist, and journalist Billy Wilder thanked the unnamed American consul officer in Mexicali, Mexico who permitted Wilder to enter the United States in 1934 despite a lack of proper documentation – because Wilder told the officer that he wrote movies – stating simply “write some good ones.” Wilder became one of the most successful filmmakers in the entertainment industry, in addition to shaping American film culture. Immigration reform of course must prioritize the needs of certain growing U.S. industries, but those industries in turn must recognize that the long-term success of the U.S. economy depends on a broader spectrum of qualifications than the singular focus on highly-skilled STEM workers permits. Like Billy Wilder’s consul officer, immigration reform must have the foresight to recognize that those who enrich our lives through the arts and humanities contribute to both the culture and to the economy.

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