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Raise The Cap: Why America Needs More Essential Workers
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP Amoco Corporation. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP Amoco Corporation in any way.

Biography July 27, 2000 -- While the shortage of high technology talent threatens to abort our national boom, an equally severe absence of "essential workers" is no less ominous. Most headlines speak of the "new economy's" justifiable reliance on IT expertise. Yet, we would do well to remember that much of what makes America run is neither glamorous nor space age but hard, basic, tedious and fundamental. The 10,000 limit on the "other worker" category imposed by the Immigration Act of 1990 deprives this nation of the essential workers who cook our food, clean our homes, run our machines, care for our aged, mow our lawns, wash our cars, work in hotels and do a whole host of other things whose continued presence add richness and texture to the national mosaic. At a time when Silicon Valley has made expansion of the H-1B cap its top legislative priority, the rest of American business must broaden the national conversation to ensure that equally necessary essential workers are not left behind.

Unemployment nationally is at its lowest point in 30 years, having been at 5% or below since April 1997. 60% of metropolitan areas enjoy unemployment rates of 4% or less; 30% have rates of 30% or less and 5% boast jobless rates of 2% and below. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2006 we will have 10 million more jobs than available workers to fill them. Full employment, once dismissed by skeptics as impossible to achieve, has spread far beyond the frontiers of the information age to the heartland of the old economy. The most recent measure of unemployment in the Kansas City area, taken this past May, was 2.0%. Missouri's jobless rate was 2.6%; Kansas rate was 3.2%. Unemployment throughout the Midwest is well below 5.5%, a figure traditionally used by economists as the functional equivalent of full employment.

That immortal sage Yogi Berra may not have had US immigration policy on his mind when he said, "Predicting is dangerous. Especially when it's about the future." Even so, Yogi most certainly would have agreed with the great French philosopher Auguste Comte's observation that "demography is destiny." The Baby Boomer generation, born 1946-1964, numbers about 70 million. Since 1978, the rate of growth for the US workplace has steadily declined. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from now to 2008, the workforce will grow by only about 1% annually. After 2011, when the first Baby Boomers turn 65, huge numbers of elderly will stop working. Since demographics predict that virtually all US population growth will occur in the Southern, Western and Mountain states, a vastly shrunken workforce everywhere else will present new challenges to employers and exacerbate already tight job markets. Today, the industrial Midwestern heartland is already experiencing the effects of slow population and stagnant workforce growth. As the existing labor pool ages, restaurants, nursing homes, shipyards, factories, offices and countless other employers in the "old economy" need more essential workers. Their continued survival depends in large measure on sustained immigration at higher levels.

Industries that traditionally rely on workers in the 25-40 age bracket are going to find it much tougher to recruit and retain qualified workers in those regions with a stagnant workforce. Making matters worse is the fact that these same employers in the hospitality, construction, industrial and health care fields cannot hope to match the allure or benefits of their high tech counterparts. Firms that now employ older and mainly white non-Hispanics as tool and die makers or mobile heavy equipment mechanics cannot hope to stay in business unless Congress relaxes or removes the artificial limit on essential workers.

The continued existence of this limit has no basis in economic reality. It reflects the entirely false belief that America has too many so-called "unskilled workers" and not enough jobs to go around. Precisely the opposite is the case. While high tech knowledge is obviously the key to future prosperity, the backbone of the American economy remains in the hands of those sectors, such as manufacturing, health care, retail trade, and hospitality, where small to mid-size companies rely on an unskilled workplace pool. We are talking about big bucks here; revenues generated by the lodging industry in 1998 amounted to $93 billion. Today, in the United States, there are 2,950 iron foundries employing over 225,000 people. Metalcasting is essential to every major manufacturing and technology from automobile parts to golf clubs. Casting shipments in 1998 were valued over $25 billion.

No industry can last if it cannot find new workers or keep old ones. Shipyards along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana and Mississippi have seen their orders increase and their workforce shrink while the US Department of Labor approves H-2B Temporary Labor Certifications at a glacial pace. "We either start importing workers or exporting jobs," Deborah A Ray, vice president of Seaport Services Inc., a Pascagoula, Mississippi-based Company that provides temporary workers for shipyards, told a recent immigration seminar. Mississippi companies, hardly a bastion of liberalism, are now making 12-18 requests a week to federal agencies for temporary foreign workers, largely from Canada and Mexico. According to a recent survey of large and small foundries conducted by the National Association of Manufactures, 60% of respondents reported that new hires lacked basic job skills while 46% could not attract enough unskilled workers. At a recent hearing before the Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee of the House Education & Workforce Committee that focused on 21st century worker shortages, representatives of the nursing home industry warned that chronic staff shortages, soaring turnover, high vacancy rates for skilled care providers and dramatically reduced Medicare and Medicaid funding has converged to force a looming Hobson's choice of refusing new admissions, closing facilities, or reducing quality of care. When the Baby Boomers retire, none of these will be legally acceptable or politically palatable.

The answer is to lift the chokehold holding back the necessary immigration of more essential workers. At a Manhattan news conference two weeks ago, William Carroll, former INS District Director in Washington, D.C. made this frank admission: "The system is broken. There is a need for labor in this country. There is a need to fill jobs. Yet there is no system to fill these jobs, except through the undocumented." While Mr. Carroll advocated a general amnesty to fill the empty jobs created by the country's booming economy, a major expansion of the "other worker" employment category is necessary for precisely the same reason. In the weeks to come, when the H-1B cap debate reaches its climax, let us remember that there is another "cap" which should also be raised and for reasons no less compelling.

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