Secretary of Labor: US immigration system is 'a threat to our economy'

Secretary of Labor: US immigration system is ‘a threat to our economy’

While that may be unlikely in a politically divided Washington, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said immigration reform is what lawmakers should be top of mind after Friday’s November jobs report was showed stronger results than expected, but a persistent skills gap.

Friday’s report showed growth in overall employment levels as well as average hourly earnings with the unemployment rate remaining at a low 3.7% – despite months of interest rate hikes of the Federal Reserve which should eventually increase unemployment.

During an appearance on Yahoo Finance Live on Friday, Secretary Walsh said while traveling across the country that what companies need most from him are skilled workers and that the need remains common in the sectors of health, technology and other sectors.

“They are looking for employees,” he says.

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 02: US President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh after signing bipartisan legislation averting a railroad strike in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on December 02, 2022 in Washington, D.C. DC.  Biden helped broker a deal between freight rail companies and their workers in September, but a union that primarily represents drivers rejected the plan.  Considering the need to avoid the economic damage caused by a railroad strike over the holiday season, Congress passed legislation mandating the negotiated settlement.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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

According to another release earlier this week, there are approximately 10.3 million open jobs in the United States, many of which are for skilled workers who are not available.

“When I talk to employers in this country, almost everyone I talk to is all in favor of immigration reform,” Walsh said, adding that lawmakers in Washington “need to look at our system of Immigration is a threat to our economy.”

The skills gap has shown few signs of easing with a labor force participation rate that is largely stable and is not expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels anytime soon. At the beginning of 2020, around 63.4% of the population was working or looking for a job. This rate was 62.1% in November.

“We can create pathways for immigration”

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

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

But when it comes to immigration, the odds look slim in the coming years with Washington’s divided political landscape. Capitol Hill lawmakers are primarily focused on other issues such as government funding in 2023 and preventing a railroad strike before Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 2023.

Despite years of discussion – 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 the then President, Ronald Reagan. Since then, a series of efforts have failed, with the two sides mostly talking to each other on the issue.

“When we talk about immigration, especially on Capitol Hill, they talk about it in terms of the border and the southern border,” Walsh said, but “it’s not immigration.”

Business leaders are also focusing less on the border and more on programs that offer temporary visas to 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 job market.

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

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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