The issue of immigration reform is back on the agenda for 2014, with President Barack Obama recently characterizing the bill passed last summer by the U.S. Senate as a measure that would "boost our economy" and bring in "high-skilled workers." Business leaders agree, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants to see reform address the ability to import workers to fill "both low-skilled and high-skilled jobs."
With unemployment still as high as 7%, does the U.S. really need to introduce more immigrant labor? It's a complicated question, particularly for a country where growth was so strongly dependent upon immigration for so many years -- and, to a lesser degree, still is.
An integral part of the labor force
There is little doubt that immigrant labor was instrumental in the evolution of the United States, and it is hard to imagine the industrial revolution without the waves of immigrants supplying labor for the new factories. The immigrant population is still very much part of the U.S. landscape, increasing its numbers from 25 million in 1996 to 40 million by 2011, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Migrants make up 16% of the work force, and over 50% of the labor force growth. This is no small matter, since the U.S. labor force participation rate has been falling over the past decade and has accelerated since the financial crisis. As jobs go unfilled as people drop out of the labor force, economic growth is stunted. At the end of October 2013, there were 3.9 million job openings, higher than the 3.6 million reported one year earlier.
Employers want more access to foreign workers
With so many jobs staying vacant, employers have been clamoring for immigration reform that will make it easier to bring foreign-born workers into the country. Manufacturers, for instance, claim they cannot find employees to fill 600,000 new jobs, citing lack of qualifications.
The technology industry has been very vocal in its desire to import workers from other countries. Last year, the industry lobbied to have language favorable to such companies inserted into the immigration bill -- and succeeded. Still, lobbyists for tech giants like Microsoft and Oracle want to see restrictions on when employers can hire a temporary foreign worker to replace a laid-off U.S. worker removed -- a concept that seems ill-conceived at best.
We need a balanced perspective
What's the answer? Obviously, immigrants will -- and should -- continue to be an important part of the labor force. A study by the Pew Research Center notes that an astounding 93% of the work force expansion over the next 36 years will be made up of new immigrants and their second-generation offspring. With this country's declining labor force participation rate, that's huge.
But what of the millions of Americans still seeking work? With employers wanting to import high-skilled and low-skilled labor, that leaves mid-wage jobs as the best opportunity -- yet that job sector has been decimated since the financial crisis. As for low-skilled jobs, lax immigration controls have resulted in an expanding undocumented worker population with primarily low job skills, an issue that immigration reform may be able to mitigate.
High-skilled jobs generally pay the most, and are often the most desired by employers. Foreign-born workers in this category contribute the most to the U.S. economy, and this is where the tech industry wishes to see changes made. This point of view is not new in high-tech. In 2007, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates told Congress that reforms needed to be made in order for his and similar companies to hire foreign-born employees to fill positions that unqualified Americans could not.
But Americans can become qualified, and it seems that tech has a ready-made population to dip into: the youngest of U.S. workers, aged 16 to 24 years, currently experiencing an unemployment rate of more than 16%. In the six years since Gates made that speech, it seems the moneyed tech sector could have been using its influence to groom a whole new generation of high-skilled workers, many of whom could right now be filling these crucial positions that still exist.
Immigrant labor is vital to the American work force and economy, and an immigration policy that addresses those needs, as well as the well-being of both domestic and foreign workers, is essential. But so is preparing the U.S. work force for the future, even though most employers seem loath to spend money on worker education and training. When it comes to developing and utilizing a well-qualified domestic labor force, however, it certainly sounds like it would be money well spent.