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Editorial: Right mix of solutions needed to plug job gaps
Legal immigration reform is one step, but worker shortages affect all income levels
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A help wanted sign is seen outside Club Corners Car Wash in Gainesville in August 2017. - photo by David Barnes

So who is doing the laboring this Labor Day holiday?

It's a murky picture. Unemployment is down: 4.6 percent nationwide, 5.1 percent in Georgia, 4.2 percent in Hall County. Jobless rates are down in 340 of the 388 metropolitan areas polled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So there's plenty of work, right? Not necessarily. The jobless rate doesn't include many who have given up looking for full-time work and taken part-time jobs just to pay the bills. While some occupations are showing growth, others have a dim future. If you're looking for work in health care, marketing or technical fields, times are good. For many manufacturing jobs replaced by automation or cheaper overseas labor, not so much.

Amid all this, the debate over the nation's immigration policies is taking a renewed focus on the industries and labor needs foreign workers provide. The debate centers on legal immigration vs. illegal workers, high-skilled jobs vs. low-income and which needs take precedence.

A growing economy needs high-tech experts, engineers, medical researchers and the world's finest minds to pilot us to the future. But each of them will still need houses built, vehicles serviced and fruits, vegetables and chicken provided. Maintaining the right level of immigrant labor to benefit everyone should address the entire employment spectrum, either together or separately.

On one end, Georgia Sen. David Perdue and fellow Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas have proposed changing legal immigration by applying a merit-based scoring system and cutting the number of entries into the country in half over 10 years by admitting only the most skilled foreign workers. The Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act would rate applicants on income, savings, job skills, ability to speak English and other factors, and limit entry to just immediate family members.

In a recent visit with The Times' editorial board, Perdue said the plan is based on systems in Canada and Australia and similar to one proposed by Democrats Barbara Jordan and Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Though the bill faces a tough sell in Congress, Perdue calls it “pro worker, pro growth,” and 44 percent of respondents to a Politico survey support it.

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Georgia Sen. David Perdue meets with Times editors Aug. 23 in Gainesville. - photo by David Barnes
“The traditional approach has been: We want to solve this thing in a comprehensive, sweeping, Washington-type solution,” Perdue said. “They always start with amnesty and illegal (immigrants) and never get to the real parts that affect the economy in a big way.”

By limiting legal immigrants to those with higher education and skills, Perdue believes the RAISE Act would cut the number dependent on government programs.

“One out of 15 people that come into the United States come in without any skills that can (get them) work,” Perdue said. “You don’t want to bring people in and deny them an opportunity to achieve the American dream. You want people who can come in and improve the economy.”

The plan could help fill jobs on the higher end of the income spectrum, but is just one leg of the stool needed to prop up the nation's labor needs. Many business owners in Hall County are having a hard time filling jobs in agriculture, food service, hospitality and construction. Help wanted signs in front of many stores tell the story.

“I have never seen staffing this bad,” said Karen Bremer, chief executive officer of the Georgia Restaurant Association. That sentiment is echoed by Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel & Lodging Association.

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said “Most any poultry processing facility in our area, or really in Georgia, there are jobs available every week for potential employees.”

The belief has been by limiting illegal immigration, such jobs could be filled by native-born Americans who need work. But that has rarely been the case in the past, and the higher salaries they would seek could in turn drive up consumer prices.

In 2011, a state law cracking down on illegal immigrants led to a shortfall of 11,000 workers and caused $75 million in crop losses for south Georgia farmers whose fruits and vegetables rotted in the fields. Those they hired to replace migrant workers didn't stay on the job long, unwilling to take on back-breaking work under a blazing sun. It seems most Americans have set their sights beyond manual labor.

Other jobs to be filled call for specific skills that require training. The Department of Labor reports U.S. industries will need tens of thousands more cement masons, electricians and carpenters in the next five years. Some of those positions can be filled by continued support of technical schools like Lanier Technical College and funding vo-tech programs in K-12 education. And even in those areas, skilled foreign workers can help ease labor shortages.

That's why the nation still needs a comprehensive approach to immigration, however it is enacted, to fill both economic and humane needs. Legal immigration limits such as the RAISE Act could help fill certain jobs, provided it is flexible enough to change with market needs. But it needs to be balanced by allowing legal access to lower-skilled jobs as well, something Perdue and other leaders acknowledge is another part of the solution. Streamlining the process for H2-A and H2-B temporary work visas could help more illegal workers become documented, come out of the shadows and handle jobs where they're needed. Those with steady work are less likely to rely on government assistance and will become productive residents paying property, school and sales taxes. To address both legal and illegal immigration to meet the economy's needs requires hitting several targets at once to wed demand with supply up and down the employment line.

America's labor force has always been a changing entity, now more than ever. Keep in mind the “Made in the USA” label we wear proudly was made possible by previous generations of immigrants who helped build the world’s greatest economy. Let’s celebrate their efforts and those to come as we enjoy the last weekend of summer with a full dinner table.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

“You don’t want to bring people in and deny them an opportunity to achieve the American dream. You want people who can come in and improve the economy.”
Sen. David Perdue
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