In June, the U.S. economy had 7.4 million job openings, but only six million people were looking for work, according to data released by the US Department of Labor. Startling: the number of open jobs was higher than the number of people looking for work.
This is not normal. Ever since Labor began tracking job turnover two decades ago, there have always been more people looking for work than jobs available.
Employers have been complaining about a shortage of skilled workers in recent years, particularly workers with advanced degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields. But here’s a new and surprising twist: the Department of Labor has reported that employers are having a harder time filling blue-collar positions than professional positions that require a college education.
The hardest-to-find workers are no longer computer engineers. They are home health care aides, restaurant workers and hotel staff. The shift is happening because more Americans are going to college and taking professional jobs, while working-class baby boomers are retiring in massive numbers.
Current data shows that many workers are quitting their jobs. When more people are quitting than getting fired, that’s usually a sign of a healthy labor market. It means people are finding better-paying jobs, or feel confident that they will.
The Wall Street Journal reported that in April 3.5 million workers quit their jobs, the highest number ever recorded in a single month. Meanwhile, layoffs and firings remain at record-low levels. Who are the workers quitting at the highest rates? Restaurant and food catering workers, followed by those in the hotel and tourism industry.
Both industries rely on a large number of low-paid workers. The fact that so many are quitting suggests that workers are fed up with jobs having pay grades hovering at the minimum wage. One might think that there’s no better time for working-class Americans to demand better wages, benefits and work conditions. However, with the decline in labor union leverage, unskilled workers’ pay remains at minimum wage levels. It also means immigration reform is more urgent than ever. In order to fill all the open jobs and keep the economy growing, we will need to allow more low-skilled immigrants to come and to work — legally.
The Labor Department reports that there are about 1.5 million people who are considered “marginally attached” to the U.S. labor force and who are not counted as job seekers. They are people who would like to work but don’t need to, or can’t work because of other responsibilities. Economists agree that employers need to have more workers to join the labor market. But the workers simply are not there. We need to make that possible.
Slow wage income growth has been the most persistent problem affecting the U.S. economy in its recovery from the Great Recession. Wages have barely kept up with the cost of living, even as the unemployment rate dropped and the economy expanded. The hard truth is that the economy needs more low-skilled immigrants. But President Trump’s restrictions on immigration threaten to make the labor shortage even worse.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has tried to scale back nearly every avenue of legal immigration, ignoring the high demand for unskilled immigrant workers. His most recent immigration proposal would revamp the current legal immigration system, which currently prioritizes immigrants with family ties to the US. The new, announced green card system would favor immigrants with high levels of education, English-language fluency, and professional skills. President Trump has proposed now to make it even harder for unskilled immigrants to come to the U.S. to fill the labor needs of the economy.
In March of 2017, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board warned Trump that his restrictions on immigration could hurt the economy: “If President Trump wants employers to produce and build more in America, the U.S. will need to improve education and skills in manufacturing. But the economy will also need more foreign workers, and better guest worker programs to bring them in legally.”
Darrell West, a Brookings expert on technology and public policy, has pointed out that the U.S. economy would suffer if Congress and the president didn’t overhaul the immigration system. Providing more legal work visas for skilled and unskilled immigrants seems an obvious solution to ease the labor shortage. But it’s also the solution Trump seems least inclined to take.
The workers we need simply need a legal status as workers. They don’t have to be on a citizenship path. They will not be on the voting rolls. We simply need them to be here working. We need them to be participating as part of the economy, producing the goods and services we need — and paying taxes.
Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary.