The U.S. Policy on Immigration Should Be ‘Help Wanted’

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

In several recent posts, I’ve focused on the growing competition for skilled workers around the globe. I’ve noted that even China, with a population of 1.3 billion, and Germany, with its specialized vocational schools, are feeling the pinch. And before that, I discussed a potential “skills gap” here in the States.

The common thread running through all of these columns is that businesses everywhere need the right people, with the right skills, in the right places at the right time. While my primary focus has been on manufacturing, the same holds true for other sectors, such as hospitality and agriculture.

Making sure U.S. businesses have access to the workers they need, when and where they need them—whether they’re apple pickers in Winchester, Va., or computer engineers in Silicon Valley—should a top priority of the immigration debate taking place in Washington. The fact that it isn’t tells me that business executives need to get more engaged.

The debate has become a battle of canned talking points. On the one hand are those who point out that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. On the other hand are those who say a sovereign nation has the right to control its borders. Both camps are right. So what?

The question we need to be asking—and answering—is: What is the purpose of an immigration policy? If it’s just to control the borders, we might as well build the fences some ask for. On the other hand, if everyone should be welcome, we ought to stop patrolling the borders: It would save a lot of money.

The answer, of course, is neither of those. We have an immigration policy so we can choose, as a nation, who among the foreign born should be extended the privilege of living and working here.

And the smart answer is (or should be): We should seek out first those we need the most, such as scientists and engineers, mathematicians and computer specialists, doctors and health-care workers, skilled tradespeople. Instead of “Stop Here,” our borders should be posted with “Help Wanted” signs.

This could include seasonal guest workers as well, to meet the needs of the agricultural and hospitality industries.

The benefits of such a policy should be apparent. For example, more than three-fourths of the patents that were granted in 2011 to 10 of the U.S. universities that received the most patents that year included at least one foreign-born applicant.

The bottom line is clear: A mismatch exists in the U.S. between the jobs that need to be filled and the skills of those looking for work.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, our colleges and universities award more than three times as many undergraduate degrees in the visual arts, business, psychology, and social studies than in the physical sciences, computer sciences, biology, and engineering.

The cumbersome H-1B visa program, which allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in certain specialty occupations for limited periods of time, is a temporary fix at best, not a solution.

Immigration reform is now on the table in Washington. Business executives should not let this opportunity pass.

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