It’s been said that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth. In this era of “fake news,” this is especially true, and myths, half-truths, and outright lies seem to gain traction precisely because they have been repeated ad nauseam for years, or even decades. Such is the case of the pernicious “labor shortage” myth.
This myth is a very old one, going back to the Great Wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One could argue that during the 1800s — when we needed to settle and develop a vast virgin continent and rapidly growing industries that required lots of low-skilled workers — the “we need foreign workers” claim had a legitimate basis. It has long ceased to hold water, however. Instead, for decades it has been utilized by powerful business interests as a mantra justifying the mass importation of cheap labor at the expense of wages and working conditions for American workers.
Sadly, during his State of the Union and CPAC speeches, President Trump also subscribed to this view and attempted to persuade his audience that we “need more foreign workers.” He was quickly criticized for this, and rightly so.
Let’s set the record straight: there is no labor shortage in the U.S. Although the unemployment rate has fallen by approximately one percentage point (from roughly 5 percent in 2016 to 4 percent today), 6.5 million Americans are still unemployed as of January 2019. These are admittedly good job numbers, but we could do better — particularly in light of the supposed necessity of importing more foreign labor.
Proponents of the “labor shortage” narrative will undoubtedly point out that (as of October 2018) there are approximately seven million job openings in the U.S., exceeding the number of unemployed individuals. What many fail to notice is the large, untapped reservoirs of labor available in the U.S. These are Americans who have all but given up on finding a job. The DOL reports that 426,000 Americans are no longer considered unemployed because they’ve simply given up their job search altogether. Moreover, the labor force participation rate is still only 63.2 percent, or 95 million working-age adults who are not in the labor force. That should be a large enough pool to find the seven million workers businesses say they need.
Rather than importing foreign workers, would it not make more sense to encourage our own citizens to come back into the workplace through better recruitment networks, while offering better wages and working conditions? Sure, in the short-run it may be cheaper and more convenient to bring in foreign labor. But the United States government is not a personnel agency. Its function is to balance the interests of American workers and American businesses. In many cases, these dual interests can best be served by policies that encourage businesses to train and update the skills of available workers who meet certain baseline requirements — a routine business practice that existed until companies got hooked on foreign guest workers.
The fact that we are even having this discussion is evidence of the abject failure of our current legal immigration system. Legal immigration to the U.S. currently exceeds 1.1 million per year and unfortunately the vast majority of these immigrants are selected based on extended family ties instead — also known as chain migration — instead of merit, level of education or language skills. If the current flow of immigrants doesn’t meet the needs of employers, then that would suggest that we need to have a national conversation of moving to merit based immigration system, not on increasing overall levels, which are already at a historic high.
Furthermore, U.S. universities confer almost two million bachelor’s degrees every year. This number has doubled since the 1980s. Some of the bachelor’s degrees admittedly are in less marketable fields, but 371,000 are in business, 114,000 in biological and biomedical sciences, 64,000 computer and information sciences, 107,000 in engineering, 229,000 in health professions and related programs, and so forth.
If these numbers are insufficient to satisfy employer demand, then perhaps a serious national conversation about higher education reform is in order as well. Especially since one of our college graduates’ biggest grievances is the crushing level of student debt coupled with problems finding high-paying jobs offering upward mobility. American college grads have dreams too!
If the president and members of Congress want Americans to reap the rewards of a tightening labor market, they should stop importing foreign competition for U.S. workers. The best way to energize the American economy is to keep as many Americans as possible fully employed.
Pawel Styrna is an American immigrant and an immigration policy analyst at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.