The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been a long-time advocate of responsible immigration reform, championing the issue well before the political revival of the 113th Congress. Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the Chamber, said in an op-ed last year that “the work of immigrants is complementary, not competitive” and that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” making the case for the economic incentives immigration reform would bring for both American business owners and workers.
As part of their latest campaign, #ibuildimmigration, launched earlier this month in cooperation with the National Association of Manufacturers and the Partnership for a New American Economy, the Chamber and the Partnership co-hosted an event on Capitol Hill to release a new report on how immigration reform is vital to addressing the less-skilled (requiring a high school diploma or less) labor gap in America and to discuss how our changing demographic is exacerbating the problem.
The report offered five major findings:
1.) Because of an increase in education and decreasing fertility rates, the number of less-skilled workers declined by almost 12.3 million people between 1990 and 2010. While the current percentages of change seem small (see figures below), the authors contend that they will “lead over time to real and dramatic declines in the number of potential workers available to employers such as the hotels, restaurants, and farms dependent upon less skilled labor.”
2.) Significant strides in female education attainment contributed to almost two-thirds of the decline in the number of young, less-skilled, U.S.-born workers. “Between 1990 and 2010, the number of women in that group fell by 8 million people.”
3.) While the number of less-skilled, U.S.-born workers continues to decline, the number of less skilled jobs is projected to increase in coming years. “The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 63 percent of the new jobs created between 2008 and 2018 will require a high school degree or less.”
In addition, Dr. Audrey Singer, Senior Fellow for the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and member of the academic panel at yesterday’s discussion, pointed out that immigrants are already over-represented in professions projected to create the most new jobs – many of which require only a high school diploma or less, such as truck drivers, office clerks, and customer service representatives.
4.) Between 1995 and 2010, the increase in second generation less-skilled, young immigrants helped to offset some of the labor shortages.
5.) The current, broken immigration system does not allow for the entrance of enough less-skilled immigrants to fully compensate for the demographic change that has caused a low skill labor shortage. “Having enough less-skilled immigrants to fill such job vacancies is crucial for U.S. job growth overall. Without industries…being fully staffed – by immigrants or by natives – valuable opportunities are lost.”
A separate, but related, report published by the Partnership for a New American Economy in early March, found that a labor shortage in the agriculture industry stifled expansion, which led to an increase in the importation of fresh produce and a loss of millions of dollars in revenue and thousands of additional jobs.
The Capitol Hill event offered congressional aides the opportunity to engage in first-hand analysis and question the academic panel. One of the more pointed questions asked was why expanding the number of low-skilled immigrants in the American workforce was considered a viable solution, when so many young Americans are currently forced to accept what are considered “low-skill” jobs, despite having higher degrees of education.
The panel’s answer: The current labor market is slow because of a temporary condition caused by the recession. As the economy grows, the labor market will increase at all skill levels, and public policy shouldn’t be determined by a temporary state of affairs.
Dr. Frank Bean, Director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy at UC Irvine and co-author of the report released at the event, said that the claim that more Americans would be willing to take on lower-skilled work given the implementation of higher wages no longer applies, simply because of the demographic changes in the country. The numbers don’t work out; the addition of a sufficient number of young, less-skilled, native-born workers is impossible because of an increasingly educated economy and an overall decrease in births. “It’s hard to wrap your head around,” he said, but that is the reality.
For the panel, the Chamber, and the Partnership, an overhaul to the current immigration process is a key step in securing a prosperous American economy; and while no direct commentary was made on the Senate’s proposed legislation, the panel did say that a viable immigration system must be one that has the flexibility to manage the flow of workers at all skill levels and be able to adapt to the needs of potential new industries.
Although Republicans in the House continue to talk about the importance of completing immigration reform, little progress has been made in the way of reaching a compromise by the end of the year.