Immigration reform and the great demand for talent

The federal immigration reform plan is shaping up to be a balanced approach to national immigration policy, with increased border security measures counterbalanced by opportunities to help undocumented populations emerge from the shadows. This is important progress after far too many years of missed opportunities.

But while the ongoing debate over the impact of reform has largely surrounded emotional terms like “registered provisional immigrants” and “Dreamers,” the underlying reason immigration is important has been strangely missing. Bottom line: American needs the talent.

Our rapidly evolving, complex economy is causing a surge in the demand for skilled employees.  Two-thirds of all jobs created in this decade will require some form of postsecondary education, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Today, only about 40 percent of adults in the U.S. have achieved that level of education. If there is any lingering doubt about the growing demand for postsecondary degrees, certificates and other credentials, consider that Americans with a high-school diploma or less accounted for four out every five jobs lost in the recent recession.

In order to fuel our nation’s economic growth, at least 60 percent of Americans need a postsecondary degree. This is not an impossible task if we pursue two concurrent paths. First, we must redesign our education system to produce the talent we need. Improving high-school graduation and college participation rates modestly, raising college completion rates and ensuring that larger numbers of adults — many of whom have been knocked out of middle-income wage jobs permanently — get a postsecondary education will help. Smart reforms already underway to rethink the higher education business and delivery model, overhaul student finance and retool the outdated system of degrees and credentials will accelerate progress toward that goal.

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Second, we must redesign our immigration policy to increase our ability to develop and attract the talent we need.

The nation must produce roughly 62 million postsecondary credentials by 2025 if we are to hit the 60 percent target. At current rates, the U.S. will produce around 39 million two- and four-year college degrees — leaving a gap of 23 million. If we do not take this opportunity to reform our immigration policy, we undercut our ability to meet the nation’s growing talent needs and our ability to fuel an economy that benefits us all.

Producing that many additional degrees will require an “all hands on deck” effort by creating a path to citizenship for the millions of people who are currently in a legal no-man’s land. To pass on the opportunity that immigration reform presents to help us win this talent war would needlessly undercut our ability to meet the nation’s growing talent needs and our capacity to fuel an economy that benefits us all.

Attracting and retaining more highly educated immigrants will help us meet critical needs for entrepreneurs, scientists, technologists and other professionals who as a group will help create more jobs for all Americans, as these highly educated immigrants have done over multiple generations in the past. Immigrants who have the opportunity to achieve other credentials beyond high school will help us address skills gaps in many industries critical to our nation’s economic health.

We need workers to perform key economic tasks that require postsecondary skills and are essential to our economy.  We need skilled workers to provide home healthcare for our aging population, to manage our large IT infrastructure, and to staff the farms that support our important agricultural industries. The vast majority of these jobs now require postsecondary skills, with a certificate or some other form of qualification beyond high school.

We recently served on a task force convened by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that put into sharp focus the impact immigration reform could have on our collective economic well-being. The task force included former governors and mayors, business and civic leaders, foundations, labor and others all committed to sensible immigration reform in the name of economic competitiveness

Our task force colleague John Rowe, chairman emeritus of Exelon Corp., made the point most plainly: “Even with today’s high unemployment, employers in many sectors — high-tech, agriculture, the seasonal economy — need immigrants to keep their businesses open and contributing to the economy. As the economy improves, this need will only grow — global talent will play an essential role in the nation’s economic recovery.”

And that recovery will bring the job growth we need to help all Americans find the opportunity for  a decent life.


Loughrey is former president and COO of Cummins, Inc. Merisotis is president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation.