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June 09, 2007

Out of Sync: New Temporary Worker Proposals Unlikely to Meet U.S. Labor Needs

A key component of the immigration reform bill now being debated in Congress is a new temporary worker program that, ostensibly, would replace the current stream of undocumented migration with a regulated flow of less-skilled immigrant workers. However, the temporary worker provisions of the legislation, as they now stand, would not respond to the growing demand for less-skilled workers to fill permanent jobs in high-growth industries like construction. In fact, the temporary program taking shape in the Senate would have the effect of cycling less-skilled immigrant workers in and out of the lowest rungs of the U.S. labor force without creating any longer-term investment in the workers or the industries in which they are employed. An alternative program that allows workers to apply for permanent status would better address industry’s need for a larger and more settled less-skilled workforce and would more likely discourage undocumented immigration in the future.

Among the findings of this report:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that nearly 6 million new jobs will be created between 2004 and 2014 that require only short-term on-the-job training. However, the available supply of native-born workers to perform this labor is shrinking. Among the native-born population, fertility rates are falling, workers are growing older and better educated, and labor force participation rates are flattening. Immigrants, in contrast, are more likely to be younger and to have only a high-school education or less.

According to the American Community Survey, between 2000 and 2005, the less-skilled native-born labor force in the United States shrank by 2.5 million workers. At the same time, only 800,000 less-skilled immigrant workers joined the U.S. workforce. As a result, there was a net decline of 1.7 million less-skilled workers over that 5-year period - or approximately 340,000 workers per year.

The temporary worker program currently under consideration, which is capped at 200,000 per year, is unlikely to accommodate even the current level of demand for at least 340,000 new less-skilled workers every year. Moreover, because none of the workers who enter the country under the new temporary program would be permitted to stay for more than 2 years, the program provides no net increase in the size of the U.S. labor force after the second year.

Because of the shortfall in the available supply of workers to fill less-skilled jobs, key industries such as hotels and motels, restaurants, agriculture, construction, light manufacturing, healthcare, and retailing - which are already experiencing a major influx of immigrant workers - are also experiencing structural labor shortages.

BLS projects nearly 2.5 million job openings in construction between 2004 and 2014. A key characteristic of the construction industry is established career ladders for less-skilled workers. Workers typically begin as laborers or helpers but often gain on-the-job training in the use of tools, techniques, and plans. Some less-skilled workers go on to become skilled craftsmen, while others rise up the administrative ranks as crew chiefs, foremen, and site supervisors.

The temporary worker provisions now under consideration would undermine the effectiveness of job-safety programs aimed at reducing the high rates of work-site illness, injury, and fatality among immigrant construction workers. These programs take time to work and require a sustained ongoing commitment by company and employee, which is not possible for workers who come and go every 2 years.

Given the declining number of less-skilled native-born workers, immigrants - especially Latinos - comprise a rapidly escalating share of workers in all construction occupations. About 20 percent of the roughly 10 million workers currently in the construction industry are foreign-born and more than half are believed to be undocumented. Foreign-born Latinos can be found in even higher percentages in all major occupations in construction, from less-skilled laborers to more highly skilled drywallers and plasterers.

For more information contact Tim Vettel (at 202-742-5608 or tvettel@ailf.org) or visit the Immigration Policy Center website at www.immigrationpolicy.org.

Posted by VisaLawyer at June 9, 2007 07:36 AM

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