The 'Path' to Filling Empty Jobs

The phrase "comprehensive immigration reform" will be heard more often as President Obama continues to address the issue in speeches and meetings with corporate executives. But will reform really benefit organizations and strengthen the U.S. economy?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013
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Long-awaited changes to U.S. immigration laws are within reach now that the Senate has constructed the framework for a bipartisan immigration reform plan and President Obama has vocalized his intentions to fix the broken system as soon as possible.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said in a statement that President Obama's recent Las Vegas speech was a step in the right direction. "We were hopeful that the president's proposal would recognize the importance of temporary worker programs, allowing employers to fill vacancies when U.S. workers are not available, as the Senate framework provides," says Donohue, with a nod towards the  "Gang of Eight" senators who have crafted the plan; including Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Chuck Schumer (D-NY)."The Chamber will continue to work with all stakeholders toward the goal of enacting legislation this year," he said. "As the president noted, a broad coalition of groups; from business, labor unions, faith organizations and law enforcement, are joining together to build support for comprehensive reform. We should seize this opportunity to create an immigration system that serves the interests of our economy, our businesses and our society."

As co-chair of the global mobility and immigration practice at Littler Mendelson in Miami, Jorge Lopez says he agrees that the president and the Senate are moving in the right direction, and is especially interested in following the Senate's four-pillared approach to immigration reform, which calls for a guest-worker program for lower-skilled labor, paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an improved green card process for highly-skilled immigrants who graduate from U.S. universities, and the implementation of a mandatory employment verification system.

However, he says there is still much speculation that can be made before actionable legislation goes into effect; and some of the changes will be more a matter of semantics. "When the Bush administration was dealing with undocumented immigrants, he came up with a short-term visa status that then allowed people to apply for a green card and then become legal. It was never called amnesty, but it eventually allowed them to apply for a green card, so it's often just the words that are used," Lopez says. "Legalization is a bad term; it's not politically correct, and you can't use the word amnesty, either. They'll come up with catch-phrases to get around those limitations."

He says that, while the president "said nothing surprising" in his speech, it was supportive of the bipartisan effort. "However, [the Senate] is expecting to have an actual bill introduced in March, and that's where you'll see the changes in the difference of opinion and the different provisions. But overall, this is a positive, because it's finally getting onto the front burner that we need to update our immigration policy."

Lopez notes that current immigration laws were written in the 1990s. "Things are different now. We've never updated what our real needs are as a nation. Do we attract good talent and [are we] competitive in the world? Is corporate America comfortable talking about this? And can we conduct our commitments without having to worry about having the talent available? Because the lottery system doesn't work. We're looking at these issues for the first time, and we're looking at them together, and that's good."

Despite the semantics, Lopez says HR leaders can anticipate a day in the near future when they'll be able to meet their workforce needs without regulation hassles.  "You won't have to worry about immigration limitations in hiring people with skill sets that are not readily available here," he says, referring to those immigrants who have received advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) degrees from U.S. schools. "Thirty to 40 percent of those graduates are foreign."

Based in Chicago, Ed Hannibal oversees Mercer's global-mobility consulting business for North America and says immigration reform in America will resonate throughout the world.

"I think there's a lot of potential to help global organizations and organizations that are looking to globalize," says Hannibal. "Depending on what happens with H-1B visas that allow foreigners to hold jobs in the U.S., the cap -- currently limited to 65,000 annually -- becomes problematic for firms in the United States trying to bring talent in for jobs they can't fill locally. There's the potential to actually increase that cap, so this is a great opportunity, because it will help bring talent in and help organizations develop local talent."

Hannibal says there's also the potential to grant green cards to holders of advanced degrees, "which would be a great thing, because there are specific positions many companies just can't fill. This will help organizations in the United States be more competitive in being able to fill those positions, and it will also lead to the development of a larger workforce in those organizations."

The big unknown, he says, is that there are a lot of questions around where things will potentially end up, "but if this boosts the number of opportunities to employ advanced-degreed foreign workers in the United States, then this will help both America and the global economy.

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"So, from an HR perspective," he says, "if you are [working for a multi-national] organization, you want to be watching this, because it could actually be a great solution to solving short-term talent needs. And this will lead to much longer-term talent opportunities for the company and U.S. nationals."

Matt Sonnesyn, director of research at Washington-based The Business Roundtable, dismisses any notion that immigration reform will hurt Americans, ability to get jobs. 

"Immigrants really are an important part of helping our economy grow, which is critical to keeping us competitive around the world," he says, pointing to a variety of industries which depend on immigrant workers. "The hospitality industry, agriculture, construction . . . we're talking about workers who are essential to our economy. Study after study suggests that immigrants increase U.S. productivity. They are complementing, not competing with American workers. In fact, the Brookings Institute found that they raise our GDP by $37 billion a year."

Sonnesyn notes that current immigration laws -- especially ones which essentially send foreign students who graduate from U.S. universities back to their home countries -- are nonsensical. "These people can be job creators," he says, pointing out scientists and doctors tend to be well-paid.  "They could spend the money they're earning here, which creates jobs here. It's important that we develop laws to attract them here, because where talent is employed has a big impact on the economy where they live."

The estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who live and work in this country are creating an underground economy, says Sonnesyn.  "We need to make sure we have a system that allows for a sufficient legal flow of immigrants to do the jobs not filled by Americans. Because we don't have a legal channel for people to do that work, they're doing it without authorization, and we're not enforcing the law, which creates an underground economy where we're not utilizing that wealth to its greatest potential."

Sonnesyn urges HR leaders to keep an eye on the different proposals as they come up, and to say something when they notice potential issues with the implementation of proposed laws, or even good ideas.

"No one understands these issues as well as the HR folks do," he says. "We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right."




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