- September 19, 2023
- Posted by: Dan Trudeau
- Category: Immigration & H-1B visa, Job Market Update
American Jobs: The Skills Gap and Immigration
The United States workforce is shrinking, and is expected to get worse. It stems from a demographic issue: the number of people aging out of the job market is much larger than the number aging into it.
Thanks to a steep decline in the birth rate over the last 50 years, we’re facing the real prospect of not having enough people to get critical work done. We’re not alone, as nations such as China, Britain, France, Japan, etc. are up against the same problem.
There are two problems making the issue worse. That said, solving these issues would help us better manage the crisis.
The Skills Gap
The Skills Gap refers to the difference between the skills our working population needs and the ones they actually have. According to a recent survey, 69% of American organizations say they face a skills gap, compared to 55% in 2021. Those organizations also reported 20% of their positions went unfilled in 2022 because of it.
STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) have felt this the hardest, with talent shortages going back decades. The field is dependent on college-educated workers, but STEM graduates only represent 33% of earned degrees. That’s only the start, as the shrinking worker numbers put a strain on every field, from skilled trades, to nursing, teaching, and even restaurant workers.
The biggest cause of the Skills Gap is the employment market evolving faster than the institutions supporting it, especially schools. There’s been an explosion of new job paths, categories, and disciplines related to the tech market over the last three decades. Over that same period, our K-12 education programs changed little in comparison. The debate over this has focused on college and vocational training, but we need to start earlier.
The first step to fixing the Skills Gap is addressing the Awareness Gap. There are millions of children in our schools who could be engineers, doctors, teachers, carpenters, etc., but don’t know their own potential. The problem is particularly stark in poor schools, but even top-level academies have students who fall through the cracks. We need to reach these students when they’re young, inspiring them toward life options that open more doors for both them and our economy.
Of course, awareness can only go so far without programs to support it. For example, many school districts have vocational training in everything from construction trades, to auto repair, programming, cybersecurity, digital media, robotics, etc. It’s a great resource, but many school districts still don’t have them and for the ones that do, they often have waiting lists.
Going forward, schools and employers must team up to make sure students are aware of potential career paths, plus fund programs to put them on that path before adulthood. We also need to offer training options for adults interested in upping their skills. If successful, we’ll not only better manage the demographic issue, but also enable more people to have prosperous, rewarding careers.
Immigration has been one of the United States’ best tools when it comes to growing both our workforce and economy. We are a “nation of immigrants” after all. Contrary to the fear that immigration hurts people already here, data shows immigration creates more opportunities for everyone. Also, what better way to deal with a shrinking worker population than bringing more people in?
Unfortunately, our immigration system is badly out of date, making our job market woes even worse. There’s a popular idea that America doesn’t have an immigration problem as much as an illegal immigration problem. The truth is, we have a problem across the board.
Under current U.S. immigration laws, there are three paths to legally come here.
- Have a direct relative already here (parent, spouse, or sibling).
- As a designated refugee.
Through a work program, if you’ve obtained skills we need (doctors, engineers, etc.), are an acknowledged leader in your field, or investing in US-based businesses.
Most potential immigrants don’t qualify for these programs. Even if you do, the process is more difficult than it should be. Under our current system, an engineer approved for a Green Card can linger in legal limbo for decades waiting to receive it. Sometimes, they even have to return to their nation of origin. We currently have a backlog of 1.8 million people in this situation because of caps/quotas set over a generation ago.
The need for immigrants has never been more critical. Our society is better equipped to bring them in than just about any other, given the mix of opportunity and acceptance (there is no American ethnicity for them to not belong to).
Reforming immigration is no simple task. It’s been debated for decades, but so far, no one seems willing to get the job done. If we can, we’ll recover one of our greatest advantages.
These problems/solutions don’t represent a total fix to our demographic crisis. As of today, the disparity is so great that solving both wouldn’t take it off the table. That said, they could represent the difference between falling off a cliff and better managing the decline.
PRA USA has kept our finger on the pulse of the Electronics, Embedded, and Controls Engineering job market for 30+ years. We work with the best engineers and employers in this field, helping both succeed in this unpredictable job market. Contact us to find out what we can do for you!