Temporary working capital

We need to hire three people for my New Hampshire biotechnology company, but labor shortages are holding us back

Judge Amoh

Since my asthmatic childhood, I dreamed of developing technology to help the approximately 545 million people worldwide who suffer from respiratory diseases. When it came time to go to college, I left my native Ghana to go to Dartmouth, where I studied engineering as an undergraduate and a PhD. candidate. By the time I graduated in 2019, I had my patented invention: a pendant-like device leveraging AI to continuously monitor the lungs.

To date, our company Clairways has raised $1 million in investment capital and has funding from two federal agencies. A pharmaceutical company will soon pilot our device in a clinical trial. We are in talks with another major pharmaceutical company for a project with potentially global impact. This interest makes sense; our product allows pharmaceutical companies to objectively track respiratory components in clinical trials, helping to accelerate the development of lifesaving drugs. Our technology provides both instant data and a long-term picture of respiratory health. The pandemic has laid bare the need for these technologies.

As Clairways grows, a critical issue concerns hiring: it is difficult to find qualified engineers to hire in the Upper Valley. In our hiring attempts, we have found that there is a limited pool of US applicants with the necessary technical skills. While the greater Boston metro area is nearby and has a larger pool of technical talent, there isn’t much appeal for candidates to move to rural New Hampshire.

International graduates from schools like Dartmouth are a great secondary option, but immigration policy makes them nearly impossible to hire. This is a serious problem for us and for many small tech companies.

The labor shortage is real; there are 13 STEM jobs posted for every unemployed STEM worker, according to America’s New Economy.

I have been encouraged by the recent moves To resolve this problem. Recently, the House of Representatives passed the America Competes Act, paving the way for more international STEM doctorates to apply for permanent residency. And earlier this year, the White House introduced several measures to help more highly skilled immigrants, including international STEM students, work for American companies.

It could be a game-changer for companies like mine, but temporarily. Most of the measures only provide for short-term visas, which means that any international talent we hire will inevitably have a limited impact. Ultimately, these two changes represent piecemeal changes at best. If America truly wants lasting economic vitality, we need strong immigration reform.

It is incredibly difficult to hire an international worker, even when there are no US applicants. We have to spend large sums to sponsor their temporary visa with no guarantee that they will receive one; visas are granted by lottery and last year 300,000 people applied for 85,000 places. Even if we get a visa, my employees could spend decades in limbo waiting for their green card. This is partly because each country receives the same number of green cards each year, regardless of the size of its population. As a result, applicants from India and China have wait times of up to 150 years.

As a Ghanaian with an advanced degree, I was lucky. After graduating, I worked in the United States for two years on a temporary training program for STEM graduates. Eventually, given my doctorate and my valuable contributions to my industry, I applied for a national interest waiver and applied for a green card. As I come from a sparsely populated country, I obtained my permanent residence only a year and a half later.

New White House regulations will allow a wider range of international STEM graduates to take advantage of the same training program I completed. But there is no guarantee that these graduates, especially those from countries with large populations, will be able to stay for the long term. At this early stage, our young startup simply does not have the bandwidth to cover the expenses and time required to participate in the High Qualified Visa Lottery.

We are currently trying to sponsor an employee, but the process is a waste of resources. Meanwhile, our three unfilled jobs are severely limiting our production and growth.

This slows our time to market, which means pharmaceutical companies can’t use our products to accelerate drug development, which ultimately hurts Americans with respiratory health issues.

Industry leaders in STEM fields make the same plea: we applaud the new White House rules and the House’s passage of the America Competes Act, but we need to do more. We need Congress to reform the green card rules that seriously disadvantage countries with large populations. We need them to eliminate the current backlog of green cards. And we should award green cards to international STEM graduates so that we don’t lose them to countries like Canada and Australia, which are considerably more welcoming to international talent.

This is important for cities like Lebanon, where Clairways is located. Dartmouth produces brilliant graduates, but many want to move to big cities. International students are an exception. They are much more willing to accept a job in a small town or village and settle there.

Additionally, most New England states have an aging population. But from New Hampshire to Massachusetts to Maine, immigrants are far more likely to be of working age. We need this new blood to propel our businesses and fuel our public services.

This is why I created my business here in Lebanon. But we cannot innovate, grow or compete if we are constantly short of employees. Our device will help alleviate the suffering of millions of people with chronic respiratory diseases, which is why I make this appeal urgently. Congress must get serious; give American companies their workforce.

Justice Amoh is co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Clairways in Lebanon.