After years of debate and discussion about the need to update our nation’s immigration system, the issue is finally on the so-called “front burner” on Capitol Hill, and comprehensive reform is on the horizon in 2013.

From a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to border security, there are a number of challenging issues our leaders in Washington must tackle.

There is, however, an additional issue that any comprehensive immigration reform plan should also address: the shortage of educated, highly skilled workers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that STEM jobs will grow by 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent growth in non-STEM jobs. However, at the current pace, the country simply will not produce enough workers to fill the jobs.

This skills gap threatens not only our nation’s economic growth, but also our ability to compete globally.

Take the engineering field alone as an example: In 2008, a mere 4 percent of all bachelor degrees in the U.S. were awarded in engineering, as opposed to 31 percent in China.

Few regions of the country feel the burden of this skills gap more than New England, where we have a high concentration of high-tech employers — from software developers, to life science companies, to cutting-edge engineering and research firms.

Our region is home to a thriving innovation economy that will drive growth and create jobs as the economy continues to recover. Yet the question remains: Will we have the pipeline of skilled workers to fill those jobs?

Here in Maine, there are currently 3.3 STEM job openings for every one unemployed person. It is estimated that by 2018, there will be some 25,000 open STEM jobs in Maine, yet as of 2009, a mere 10.4 percent of college degrees and certificates in the state were awarded in the STEM fields.

New England is also home to some of the world’s premier colleges and universities — institutions that attract students from around the globe to receive top-notch advance training in the STEM fields.

Many of these international students graduate with hopes of remaining in the U.S., but are simply unable to obtain the necessary visas or green cards to do so. Rather than remaining here to work for growing U.S. companies, they return to their home countries to work for our competitors.

This is a problem that needs both a short-term and a long-term solution.

In the short term, we must increase the cap on H-1B visas, which allow employers to supplement their current work force with highly skilled foreign workers in specialty occupations.

In the long term, we must work to develop a domestic pipeline of highly skilled workers by investing in STEM education at all levels — from elementary school through college.

The bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package introduced in the U.S. Senate last month by the so-called “Gang of Eight” takes significant steps toward addressing these goals.

The legislation increases the cap on H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000 per year, and allocates the $500 visa fee to a STEM Education and Training Account. That account, administered by the National Science Foundation, will provide for scholarships and grants to support STEM education.

The New England Council also supports another bipartisan proposal introduced earlier this year, the Immigration Innovation Act, known as “I-Squared.”

I-Squared would increase the cap on H-1B visas to 120,000, and would implement an increased fee of $1,000 per visa. The fees collected would be allocated to fund state administered programs to promote both STEM education and worker retraining.

Regardless of which of these proposals is included in the final immigration reform bill, the only way to truly address the shortage of highly skilled workers is to address both the immediate needs of employers and the longer term demands of our growing innovation economy.

We are encouraged that leaders on both sides of the aisle have acknowledged the importance of tackling this challenge in the proposals they have put forth, and urge them to continue to work toward meaningful reform.

As our economy evolves, we must ensure a pipeline of workers skilled in the STEM disciplines, and filling the gap between availability and need will be critical to New England’s continued economic growth.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of The New England Council, a nonpartisan regional business association, and Michael E. Dubyak is chairman and CEO of WEX Inc. in South Portland.