More Unskilled Workers, Please

WASHINGTON (Foreign Policy) —

In the congressional battle over immigration reform, some of the most heated fighting has centered on employment visas for less-skilled essential workers — elder-care workers, farmworkers, builders, cleaners, servers, warehousers. In these debates, someone is usually thinking or saying, “If we create visas for less-skilled work, that amounts to saying that U.S. workers are too ‘lazy’ to do these jobs or ‘can’t cut it.’”

That’s wrong, and it’s an undeserved insult to U.S. workers. In fact, the economy’s need for essential workers from abroad is a sign of American workers’ strength. And if the United States doesn’t address this crucial shortage, the reform efforts currently on the table will likely have limited impact on the number of undocumented workers coming into the country.

The bedrock fact is that there aren’t enough U.S. workers to do these essential jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the United States will need 3 million additional workers over the next decade to fill the least-skilled jobs — jobs that do not require a high school degree — in order to achieve projected economic growth. These include jobs in home health, food preparation, freight, child care, cleaning, landscaping, and construction. Over the same period, the total number of U.S. workers entering the labor force at all skill levels, between the ages of 25 and 54, will be 1.7 million. (At younger ages, 24 years and below, the labor force will actually shrink.)

Think on that a moment. Even if every single young American dropped out of college and high school now, so that at the end of the coming decade they would be performing essential less-skilled jobs, they could only fill about half of these new openings. And of course all those kids won’t and shouldn’t stop getting educated. Around 10 percent of those new labor-force entrants will have less than a high school education; around 30 percent will have high school only.

Bottom line: At least three out of four of these new, essential jobs will be filled by workers coming to the United States from abroad, or they won’t be filled at all. This has nothing to do with laziness. It’s about numbers. It’s not only that there arenenough less-skilled Americans to do these jobs. There aren’t enough Americans period.

This economic reality is at the center of what drives immigration. But it has been at the fringe of the political theater shaping U.S. immigration reform, perhaps because would-be reformers would rather the face of immigration be a software engineer from Mumbai with a master’s degree rather than an uneducated factory worker from Mexico. The Senate’s recently passed bill would create relatively small numbers of work visas for low-skilled jobs. (The House has no bill yet.) The Senate bill would create only a few hundred thousand temporary work visas at a time — the “W” visa — with a floating cap that could rise to a hypothetical maximum of 600,000 people in the country at any one moment. And it creates a negligible number of low-skill permanent work visas.

Who will staff the millions of new low-skilled jobs the U.S. economy will create in the next decade, jobs American workers will not fill? There are the current undocumented workers in the country who may be regularized under immigration reform — but they’re already in the United States, so the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ estimates of new jobs already account for the jobs they fill. Perhaps some of these jobs will be filled by people who come on family-reunification visas, but no one knows how many of them there will be, and it will almost certainly be too few. Family-based immigrants have not been filling many of the low-skilled jobs currently filled by unauthorized workers, and the Senate bill will reduce the number of family-based visas.

All this implies that even if the United States regularizes millions of immigrants now, it is likely to have another unauthorized immigration crisis several years ahead. The last mass regularization, under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, barely altered the stock of unauthorized immigrants in the medium term. Before the regularization there were around 3 million unauthorized immigrants; just five years later there were once again around 3 million. The main reason was that the reform was a political showpiece built around the politics of “amnesty” and “security,” rather than the needs of the U.S. economy. It was never designed to fill America’s economic needs for low-skilled labor, but instead was a rickety political compromise among farmers, labor and Hispanic groups, and other interests. In the aftermath, employers had an awful choice: either turn to the black market for labor or face the consequences of a low-skilled labor shortage — stunted businesses, closed farms, infants and grandparents without proper care. The latest efforts at reform might be the best that can be hoped for from Capitol Hill. But they will similarly herald a new wave of unauthorized immigration unless their low-skill work visa caps are made much more flexible, starting from the essential labor needs of U.S. employers. And that’s unlikely.

The country’s low-skilled labor dilemma is a sign of U.S. workers’ high skill and productivity. It’s one of many things to celebrate about the United States. High school completion rates in America have been broadly rising for decades, in all ethnic groups. And skilled workers create more skilled jobs; an MBA launching a new product needs skilled marketers and programmers. Skilled workers work with skilled workers, and that kind of teamwork is obvious.

But another kind of teamwork is at the heart of the skilled economy: More skilled workers also create more less-skilled jobs. That kind of teamwork is less obvious, so it’s worth thinking through. How can that MBA launch a new product? Only by depending critically on a small army of essential low-skilled workers. She needs someone to clear the table after a client lunch, empty the garbage at her office, and run the lot where she parks. She needs someone to pick the vegetables she eats and resurface the road she drives home on. She might need someone to care for her child, or grandfather, so she can work late. All of that is just the beginning.

This other form of teamwork is less obvious because it’s often invisible. Apart from the care workers, this MBA might never meet or only briefly glimpse the rest of these less-skilled workers. Yet every step of her daily life critically depends on them as much as it depends on her skilled co-workers. They make her more productive, and she them.

This is simultaneously the reason that there are so many less-skilled jobs in America’s future and the reason that fewer Americans do those jobs. People who acquire higher skills create less-skilled jobs that they themselves aren’t suited for. Less-skilled immigrants fill that gap. Machines may be able to take over a few of these jobs; that’s why you’re seeing more self-checkout registers in retail stores. But no machine we’ll have anytime soon can help the elderly bathe safely, clear tables at restaurants, or profitably pick cucumbers. People who do less-skilled essential jobs make skilled work in America possible, and together they make American competitiveness possible. You might never see the people who clean Google’s offices, but the company’s massive contribution to U.S. competitiveness would not exist without them.

There’s nothing new here. This is how America has been filling essential jobs since 1776 — by giving opportunities to hardworking, less-skilled people from around the world. My great-great-great-grandfather came to the United States from Germany as a livestock tender because the bankers and architects of the 1840s needed him to do that work. The Senate’s immigration reform bill continues that tradition with employment visas specific to less-skilled work: the “blue card” for farmworkers and the W visa for nonagricultural workers. It is essential to include those provisions and make them as flexible as possible to meet needs for decades to come. They are a sign of U.S. workers’ skill, excellence, and productive power. Without provisions like these, any reform of immigration law will leave only two roads ahead: either throwing away economic growth and competitiveness that the United States could have had, or a continued, escalating crisis of unauthorized immigration.


Michael Clemens is a senior fellow and research manager at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, where he leads the Migration and Development initiative.

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