Invested in immigration: Foreign-born workers increasing in Columbus
By Mark Webber
A local panel of experts discussed how immigration and a diverse workforce will make Columbus more competitive in Indiana and the United States.
Sponsored by the National Immigration Forum, the discussion Thursday at The Columbus Learning Center centered around a discussion about how Columbus can better compete to attract and retain the best workforce.
Although illegal immigration has become a divisive national issue, legal immigration has become vital for the city’s thriving economy, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop told about 40 people at the forum.
“If we were deprived of immigrant labor, we’d all feel it — whether we acknowledge it or not,” Lienhoop said. “We are heavily invested in immigration – whether we understand it or not.”
The mayor’s remarks came at the beginning of a six-member panel discussion that largely focused on how skilled, foreign-born workers help the city improve its economic competitiveness in a global economy. It was entitled “Challenges and Opportunities: Attracting and Retaining a Diverse American Workforce and a Primer on Immigration.”
More foreign-born workers have come to Columbus than Americans from other parts of the country during six of the past eight years, said Jason Hester, president of the Greater Columbus Area Economic Development Corp.
That includes a Latino population that has grown by 65 percent during the past 10 years, said panelist Kathy Oren, executive director of the Community Education Coalition.
One of the smaller local firms that hires foreign-born engineers is LHP Engineering Solutions. The company recruits talent from Purdue University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said CEO Ryan Hou, who was also on the panel.
But when LHP representatives visit those Indiana schools and others, they consistently find 90 to 95 percent of the engineering graduates are foreign nationals, Hou said.
While recruiting talent is one thing, keeping them in Columbus for the long term is another.
A native of China, Hou recalled how it only took him six months after receiving his student visa in the mid-1980s until he was granted permanent residency status.
But today, a Chinese immigrant waits an average of seven years — and immigrants from India won’t get permanent residency for about 10 years, Hou said.
“I can see the fear in my engineers,” Hou said.
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