While it may be unlikely in a politically divided Washington, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh says that immigration reform is what should be top of mind for lawmakers after Friday’s November jobs report showed stronger-than-expected results but a lingering skills gap.
Friday’s report reported growth in both overall job levels as well as average hourly earnings with an unemployment rate that remained at a low 3.7% — in spite of months of interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve that are expected to eventually increase unemployment.
During a Yahoo Finance Live appearance on Friday, Secretary Walsh said when he travels around the country, what businesses tell him they need most are skilled workers and that the need remains common across healthcare, tech, and other sectors.
“They’re looking for employees,” he said.
According to another release earlier this week, there are around 10.3 million open jobs in the U.S., many of which are for skilled workers who aren’t available.
“When I talk to employers in this country, almost every single person I bring it up with all agree with immigration reform,” Walsh said, adding that lawmakers in Washington “have to look at our immigration system, it’s a threat to our economy.”
The skills gap has shown few signs of fading with a labor force participation rate that is largely flat and not expected to surpass pre-pandemic levels any time soon. In early 2020, about 63.4% of the population was working or looking for a job. That rate was 62.1% in November.
‘We can create pathways for immigration’
Walsh also highlighted another ongoing Biden administration effort to close the skills gap during Friday’s appearance: training more apprentices. He said the Biden administration has spent $363 million in the last year to increase the number of registered apprenticeships.
The unemployment gap has been widely documented, with a recent poll from Goodwill finding that “a lack of skills/training is among the top challenges to securing work and a meaningful job.” Goodwill Industries International CEO and President Steve Preston noted that workers are struggling to obtain “gateway skills that just open up doors” in an appearance on Yahoo Finance Live Friday morning.
But on immigration, chances appear slim in coming years with Washington’s divided political landscape. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are mostly focused on other issues like 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 happened in 1986 and was signed by then-President Ronald Reagan. Since then, a series of efforts have fallen short with both sides mostly talking past each other on the issue.
“When immigration’s talked about, particularly on Capitol Hill, they talk about it in regards to the border and the southern border,” Walsh said, but “that’s not immigration.”
Business leaders are likewise 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 the the program created in 1990 can be expanded in light of the current labor market.
“We can create pathways for immigration in our country,” Walsh said, “and we have to take advantage of the folks that want to work in the United States America to fill those jobs that we need to continue to grow our economy.”
Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.
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