Industry Market Trends

Can Immigration Reform Boost High-Skilled Manufacturing?

Jan 29, 2013

A comprehensive immigration reform policy that provides improved access to visas for high-skilled workers could provide a pathway to citizenship for many immigrants. These skilled employees have the potential to boost American manufacturing companies and help bridge the talent gap. President Obama and various industry groups support such reforms, but they may be facing an uphill battle.

High-skilled workers fuel business and boost competitiveness. While a shortage of skilled workers remains a critical challenge in the manufacturing industry, various leaders - including tech lobbyists, politicians, and a newly formed immigration coalition supported by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) - say immigration reform is important for supporting the industrial sector and the future of the U.S. economy.

During his inauguration address last week, President Obama spoke about the need to keep highly skilled talent in the U.S. and highlighted immigration reform as one of the top priorities for his second term. Obama is currently working on an overhaul of the immigration system that would impose verification of legal status for all new U.S. hires and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay in the country.

"Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country," he said in his speech.

Leaders in the technology sector voiced similar sentiments at a POLITICO Pro Tech Deep Dive discussion that focused on the 113th Congress. They claimed it will support immigration reform if it includes provisions for adding visas for highly skilled workers, as reported by IMT's sister publication, IMT Career Journal. At the event, Gary Shapiro, CEO and president of the Consumer Electronics Association; Dean Garfield, CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council; and former Michigan Governor John Engler discussed how reform would keep viable global firms in the U.S.

"What we're doing by cutting off the highly-skilled immigrants is so harmful to our future. It's as bad as us not dealing with the deficit issue, and ironically, one thing could help solve the other. Immigrants create economic activity," said Shapiro, who also noted that over 50 percent of PhDs in engineering are earned by foreign nationals. Such degree holders, if kicked out of the U.S., could create competing businesses abroad.

Although unemployment is still high in the U.S., many companies­ - particularly manufacturing firms - are struggling to find qualified workers for skilled positions, primarily in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs. A 2011 report from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute revealed that 67 percent of manufacturers have a moderate to severe shortage of qualified workers, with 74 percent stating that the biggest shortages are in skilled production.

One active coalition that advocates immigration reform as a potential solution to the STEM workers shortage, inSPIRE STEM USA (Supporting Productive Immigration Reform and Education), is supported by the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as businesses, education groups, and national associations who advocate improvements in the U.S. STEM pipeline and policy changes that increase H1-B visas and green cards.

"By reforming the H1-B visa system, manufacturers can fill existing jobs today while strengthening the U.S. STEM education pipeline to ensure that U.S. college graduates are able to fill those jobs tomorrow," NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons said in a coalition announcement.

While advocates insist that reform will improve high-tech competitiveness, previous efforts to pass such legislation in 2007 were unsuccessful, as concern over illegal immigrants spurred a national debate. Yet a new willingness to pass reform may emerge in the wake of President Obama's reelection, according to the Hill.

This week, a bi-partisan group of eight senators, led by New York's Charles Schumer, released a new immigration reform plan that includes tighter border security, more guest worker permits, and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. The group denies that the proposed reform is amnesty, stating that under the plan, immigrants would be subjected to fines, back taxes, and criminal background checks, and would have to learn English.

"For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it," Schumer said in announcing the plan.

However, research from Medill Reports indicates that skilled workers that are here legally are concerned that immigration reform, which would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, could cost them their jobs. Aman Kapoor, co-founder of Immigration Voice, a non-profit group that lobbies for immigration reform, told Medill that any reforms should address the concerns of the nearly 2 million immigrants who are in the U.S. legally.