To Fix Immigration, Improve U.S. Education and Link Visas to Employer Needs

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at White House before talking about immigration reform. Photograph by Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

The administration and Congress have again turned their attention to a problem that everyone agrees needs to be addressed and has been on the legislative agenda for decades: immigration reform.

The possibility of passing comprehensive reform legislation now seems unlikely, as the partisan bickering and blame game that have become standard operating practice in Washington take center stage again.

The success of many U.S. businesses, as we have noted before, depends on the availability of talent. According to government statistics, the average high-skilled manufacturing worker in the U.S. is in his or her late 50s. If the baby boomers continue to retire at present rates, and manufacturing continues to grow as we project, America could face a significant shortage of skilled workers in the years ahead. Many companies already are having trouble filling certain job vacancies.

There are only two ways to solve this emerging problem—by updating the U.S. education system so our schools produce the hundreds of thousands of additional machinists, electricians, computer technicians, programmers, and code writers our businesses need, or by importing the needed workers. Realistically, we need to do some of each.

But our outdated and highly politicized immigration system is standing in the way.

A recent study by Texas Tech Professor Benjamin Powell, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, highlights the extent of the problem. Not once in the past decade, Powell and his co-author, Zachary Gochenour, found, has the supply of H1-B visas for high-skilled workers been sufficient to meet the needs of employers. In fact, the supply of such visas lasted more than half the fiscal year in only two of the past 10 years. Both instances were during economic downturns. In fiscal year 2013, the government ran out of the allotted 65,000 H1-B visas in less than a week.

For immigration reform to be considered a success, we need a new formula for determining the proper number of visas each year, one that delinks the number from politics and ties it to the needs of the labor market.

Support for this is overwhelming. A recent poll found that 65 percent of the public supports the idea that employer demand should determine the number of guest worker permits given to non-citizens. This support was consistent across geographic and ethnic boundaries.

U.S. corporations are now competing with companies from all over the world to attract and retain the most highly qualified employees.

The most successful companies are creating talent management programs that are global in scope, rotating promising management-track employees to positions around the world to decrease attrition and ensure that they are developing leaders who can be successful in the world of global businsess.

Failing to include labor force demand as part of a solution to the immigration problem means our companies will be at a competitive disadvantage in talent development. This is bad for business and bad for the U.S. economy as it struggles to accelerate growth.

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