Federal Corner - Congress Must Address Immigration but Also Address the Workforce's Needs

Written by  Jim Young, Senior Director of Congressional Relations for Labor, HR and Safety AGC of America

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The construction industry is simultaneously experiencing record high levels of activity and a record low pool of skilled workers which, left unaddressed, will have a long-lasting impact on the industry’s future.

Recent surveys from AGC of America support the government estimates. In August, eighty percent of AGC members reported hard times filling craft positions. The industry has long identified the crisis and has worked with local secondary and post-secondary educators to expose young adults to the value of working in the construction industry. Despite these efforts, the industry cannot recruit enough workers to meet demand. Simply put, Americans are choosing to enter other industries despite higher wages in construction. Legislation being considered in Congress, the Workforce for an Expanding Economy Act, would help alleviate worker shortages by allowing foreign guest workers to enter the industry in times of need.

AGC recognizes the high propensity of foreign-born workers attracted to the construction trades, and this isn’t a new phenomenon. Immigrants have always come to America to help build the country. But the politics of immigration reform have never been more polarizing. Many attribute the President’s election victory to his hard line on immigration. This is unfortunate. Congress and the Administration must come to the reality that millions of undocumented individuals are already in the country, the majority of which are hardworking, tax-paying contributors to the economy.

AGC urges Congress and The Administration to unite together to address immigration reform. Some reforms have wide bipartisan support, such as giving legal authorization to individuals that came to the U.S. as children--referred to as Dreamers--and other work-authorized status-holders, like those with Temporary Protective Status. The recent actions by the Administration indicate a desire to further limit legal immigration and rescind the work authorizations of these status holders, which would revoke the work authorizations of 100,000 construction workers and further exacerbate the industry’s shortage.

Looking at future immigration efforts, AGC first supports strengthening the border, then addressing the undocumented in the country, and finally meeting future worker’s needs. The failure of a domestic worker supply and tightening legal immigration require additional efforts for the industry and economy to flourish in the future. Many policymakers point to a lack of a legal immigration system in the past as contributing to the millions of undocumented individuals today.

AGC supports a temporary guest worker program tailored at industries like construction as part of any future immigration reforms. The nation currently has ways for agriculture workers, seasonal workers and high-tech workers to enter the country but nothing specifically for construction workers. For this reason, AGC supports the Workforce for an Expanding Economy Act. The legislation would create a market-driven immigration visa program designed for temporary workers in occupations that do not require a college degree who seek to do year-round, non-farm work in the United States.

The bill does this by creating a system that requires both employers and potential temporary workers to receive approval from the federal government. To be eligible, employers must test the labor market and demonstrate that no American is willing and able to take the job. It would only be available in markets with very low unemployment rates. Further, workers may not enter the country until they are hired and would be tracked as they move from job to job. Employers will be required to use E-Verify. To further protect American workers, the program would fluctuate based on economic conditions. In high economic growth, more immigrants would be allowed to enter on a temporary basis and in a tight or slowing economy, the program would ratchet down.

AGC remains hopeful Congress will return to the immigration debate and address border security, the undocumented and those with temporary work authorizations while creating a future visa program to advert any continuance of the rampant illegal immigration today.

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