Snyder: Foreign nationals could help Michigan economy

Posted on February 1, 2011

LANSING (AP) — Efforts in Detroit and Ann Arbor could serve as launching pads in Michigan’s attempt to attract more highly educated, foreign-born help to revitalize its economy.
Gov. Rick Snyder has asked state officials to develop an initiative to encourage immigrants with advanced college degrees to come to Michigan to live and work. The Republican governor says the effort could help reverse the “brain drain” that hampers Michigan’s ability to attract high-tech industries.
In an era where much of the immigration debate focuses on keeping illegals out, there’s a movement in Michigan to keep more of the legal foreign nationals in the state after they graduate with advanced degrees from universities here. Studies suggest they could play a key role in creating new businesses and jobs for Michigan residents.
“There’s a growing awareness about the potential,” said Steve Tobocman, a former Democratic state lawmaker connected to Global Detroit, an effort to boost the economy by making the region more welcoming to immigrants. “It’s been an untapped market.”
Global Detroit cites Duke University research indicating a third of Michigan’s high-tech startup companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder. A U.S. Small Business Administration report found that 16 percent of all Michigan businesses started between 1996 and 2007 were started by an immigrant.
Immigrants living in southeast Michigan are more likely to have college degrees than non-immigrants, according to the Global Detroit study. Foreign-born students are awarded 44 percent of all master’s degrees in engineering and 62 percent of engineering doctorates in Michigan. Foreign-born residents account for roughly 6 percent of Michigan’s population.
The state is hoping to attract more entrepreneurs like Vinay Gupta, an Ann Arbor-based businessman originally from India who has started a half-dozen companies including a software firm called Janeeva. Gupta got an MBA from the University of Michigan while surrounded by students from other nations eager to dive into high-tech, emerging fields.
“Most times they are coming here to get degrees in markets and technologies of the future,” said Gupta, 49, a U.S. citizen since the mid-1990s. “The issue I think around here would be you have to have access to like-minded people and like-minded talent around which you can start businesses.”
That means making the state more welcoming to immigrants through programs such as Global Detroit and the Cultural Ambassadors in Ann Arbor.
The Ann Arbor program aims to capitalize on the region’s international population — driven in part by UM — to attract international business, have them partner with existing companies and keep talented immigrants in the region.
“It helps create a positive atmosphere,” said Michael Pedersen, 34, a UM student from Israel who expects to get his MBA this year and go to work for DTE Energy this summer. “We expect to stay here.”
Michigan has about 23,000 international students, said Scott Cooper, a Troy-based immigration attorney. More could be done to help them connect with employers or start their own businesses.
That could include changes at the federal level related to visas, Cooper said. But states also might do more to encourage foreign entrepreneurs to invest in the U.S.
“That’s where we’re kind of falling down, and frankly that’s where a lot of states aren’t yet competing well,” Cooper said. “So if we could facilitate this and get out there, I think Michigan could really be ahead of the curve on this.”
Michigan was the only state in the nation to lose population in the past decade, according to recently released census numbers, a reflection of the state’s lingering economic problems. The state’s jobless rate has improved, dropping to 11.7 percent in December, but still ranks fourth-highest in the nation.
The state is working to attract high-tech, life science and other companies to replace auto and manufacturing jobs lost in the past decade.
Snyder noted during his State of the State speech that about half of the start-up companies in California’s Silicon Valley have a foreign national as a founder.
“It’s a job generator, in the sense (that) 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,” Snyder told The Associated Press after mentioning the idea during his first State of the State address earlier this month. “It helps reduce unemployment for all of us by putting the right people in the process.”