U.S. immigration system is ‘a threat to our economy’

While it may not be a political divide in Washington, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said immigration reform should be top of mind for lawmakers after Friday’s November jobs report showed more stronger than expected results but a lingering skills gap.

Friday’s report reported an improvement in the overall employment level as well as average hourly earnings with the unemployment rate remaining at a low of 3.7% – despite months of interest rate increases from by the Federal Reserve which is expected to eventually increase unemployment.

During a Yahoo Finance Live appearance on Friday, Secretary Walsh said as he travels around the country, what businesses are telling him they need are skilled workers and that need remains common across healthcare. , tech, and other sectors.

“They’re looking for employees,” he said.

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 02: US President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh after signing bipartisan legislation averting a strike by railroad workers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on December 02, 2022 in Washington, DC.  Biden helped negotiate an agreement between freight railroad companies and their workers in September but a union that mainly represents conductors rejected the plan.  Recognizing the need to avoid economic damage caused by a holiday season rail strike, Congress passed legislation imposing a negotiated agreement.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh shook hands Friday at the White House after the President signed bipartisan legislation averting a strike by railroad workers. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

According to another release earlier this week, there are nearly 10.3 million open jobs in the US, most of which are for skilled workers who are underutilized.

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“When I talk to employers in this country, almost every one I bring up is with everyone in favor of immigration reform,” Walsh said, adding that Washington lawmakers “need to look at our immigration system, it’s a threat to our economy.”

The skills gap shows some signs of disappearing in a labor force participation rate which is mostly flat and is not expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. As of early 2020, about 63.4% of the population is working or looking for a job. That rate was 62.1% in November.

‘We can create pathways for immigration’

Walsh also highlighted another ongoing effort by the Biden administration to close the skills gap in Friday’s show: training more apprentices. He said the Biden administration spent $363 million last year to increase the number of registered apprenticeships.

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The unemployment gap has been widely documented, with a recent poll from Goodwill finding that “a lack of skills/training is one of the top challenges to securing employment and a meaningful work.” Goodwill Industries International CEO and President Steve Preston noted that workers are struggling to acquire “gateway skills that just open doors” in an appearance on Yahoo Finance Live Friday morning.

But on immigration, the odds are slim in the coming years in Washington’s divided political landscape. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are mostly focused on other issues such as funding the government in 2023 and averting a rail strike before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 2023.

Despite years of discussions – and calls for action from the business community – the last major immigration reform in the United States took place in 1986 and was signed by former President Ronald Reagan. Since then, a series of efforts have failed with the two sides mostly talking past each other on the issue.

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“When it comes to immigration, especially on Capitol Hill, they talk about the border and the southern border,” Walsh said, but “that’s not immigration.”

Business leaders are less focused on the border and more on programs that offer temporary visas for potential employees with specialized knowledge known as H-1B visas. Many hope that the program created in 1990 can be expanded in light of today’s labor market.

“We can create channels for immigration in our country,” said Walsh, “and we need to take advantage of people who want to work in the United States of America to fill the jobs that we need to continue to grow our economy.”

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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