A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: Skilled-workers law would be a boon for Kentucky businesses, say Chamber executives

By Dave Adkisson, Brent Cooper, Kent Oyler and Bob Quick
Special to KyForward

Earlier this year in a speech discussing immigration, former President George W. Bush declared Americans need to “dial down the rhetoric, put politics aside and modernize our immigration laws.” The Kentucky business community agrees.

Kentucky businesses know we need to get past the rhetoric and divisiveness of the issue and fix our broken immigration system into one that drives job creation and economic growth by both better meeting the needs of employers and better utilizing the unique talents of people here and abroad. Such improvements are long overdue and are essential to continued economic growth.

We support reform that will improve our competitiveness, attract and retain the best talent and workers we need, secure our borders, and keep faith with America’s legacy as an open and welcoming society.

The bipartisan Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, already passed by the House and now before the Senate represents a step forward in addressing comprehensive reforms that address security and workforce needs. The bill focuses on reforms to address skilled labor, and would remove the per-country cap for employment-based green cards. Until action is taken, Kentucky businesses will continue to face critical skill gaps.

As things stand, no more than 7 percent of each year’s green cards go to citizens of any one country, so applicants from high-demand countries often spend decades languishing on waiting lists. If you’re an engineer or computer scientist from India, you could face an incredible 150-year delay before being able to accept a job offer from a Kentucky employer. Further, short-term visas aren’t much help.

This year, American employers seeking high-skilled workers filed 201,000 applications for just 85,000 available H-1B visas. Without a path to a green card, many skilled workers give up and move to more welcoming countries.

That’s holding back Kentucky businesses. According to a 2017 survey, 81 percent of Kentucky employers expect strong growth over the next few years – but 84 percent of those businesses struggle to hire skilled workers. To put it simply, our state’s chronic shortage of engineers, scientists, and other technical specialists is hobbling companies that would otherwise be creating jobs for all of us.

Even under our current system, skilled immigrants make vital contributions. While immigrants account for less than four percent of Kentucky’s population, they make up more than a quarter of our physicians and surgeons, and 17 percent of our postsecondary teachers, according to New American Economy.

These immigrants aren’t taking jobs from Kentuckians. Last year our unemployment rate hit 3.5 percent – the lowest since at least 1976. Due to an increasing amount of retirees, there aren’t enough workers coming into the workforce to fill vacancies.

It is also a fact that just 51 percent of Kentucky’s workers have a college education, compared to 60 percent of the national workforce. To build a future-proof, globally competitive workforce we need to not only invest more in higher education, we also need to seed our labor pool with high-skilled international workers.

Many Democrats and Republicans recognize the need for change, including Kentucky’s own Sen. Paul. Last month, in fact, Sen. Paul introduced similar legislation, dubbed the BELIEVE Act, that would do much the same as the FHSIA, and more.

We applaud and share Sen. Paul’s desire to reform the immigration system. Our economy needs comprehensive immigration reform to help employers hire both skilled workers and non-skilled jobs in the healthcare, construction, agriculture and hospitality industries.

We urge Sen. Paul and members of the Senate to seize this opportunity and pass a bipartisan, commonsense immigration law that will move our economy forward.

Dave Adkisson, president and CEO of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Brent Cooper, president and CEO of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce; Kent Oyler, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc.; and
Bob Quick, president and CEO of Commerce Lexington.

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