United States: labor shortages persist despite immigration rebound

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Published on 2022-10-17 at 14:00 by Ameerah Arjanee
Immigration to the United States has nearly rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. In spite of that, some sectors, namely hospitality, construction and services, are still experiencing severe worker shortages. These sectors have historically been staffed by working-class migrants, especially from Central and South America. Some analysts say that increasing legal immigration pathways for that demographic is a solution. 

Immigration is back to 80% of pre-pandemic levels

Since the US reopened its borders in November 2021, immigration rates have been steadily returning back to normal. The State Department is currently processing about 800,000 non-immigrant work visas per month, which is 80% of the 2019 figures. In contrast, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, only about 200,000 temporary workers were admitted into the country. 

Despite the improvement in 2022, the US currently has 1.7 million less working-age migrants than it would have had if the pandemic had never occurred, reveals a study by academics from the University of California Davis. Why is that so? 

The problem actually started before the pandemic, when the Trump administration legislated new immigration restrictions. The current Biden-Harris administration hasn't overturned these restrictions yet, and their politics seem more oriented towards discouraging undocumented immigration from Central and South America, especially from the so-called Northern Triangle: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Persistent vacancies in sectors that depend on immigrants

According to the US Bureau of Statistics, there have been an astounding 9 to 12 million job openings in each month of 2022 until now. The sectors with the most unfilled openings unsurprisingly coincide with industries that employ the most immigrants and temporary foreign workers – hospitality, construction and services. In contrast, sectors that have always been mostly staffed by US citizens, such as finance and public service, are not experiencing similar shortages.

The US Department of Labor shows that in 2018, nearly 20% of all hospitality workers were immigrants. In accommodation and hotels, in particular, immigrant workers made up over 30% of the workforce. The service industry, which includes beauticians, maintenance officers, food distributors and business support officers, also has many documented and undocumented immigrants as workers. For example, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly 25% of all service positions in the food industry are staffed by immigrants. As for the construction industry, a 2018 survey of the US Census Bureau revealed that a quarter of its workers were also foreign-born.

In many countries around the world, workers have been reluctant to return to the hospitality sector after seeing how they were fired or put on leave without pay at the height of the pandemic. According to the New American Economy Research Fund, these aforementioned industries cut millions of jobs in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, both the American hospitality and food services industries dismissed about 45% of their workforce, which added up to a total of nearly 6.5 million jobs.

These sectors have been re-creating new jobs as they recover in 2022. In September alone, there were 83,000 new leisure and hospitality jobs, 19,000 new construction jobs and 46,000 new jobs in business services, according to the Employment Situation Summary of the Bureau of Statistics. However, these jobs are now not finding enough workers. Case in point, in mid-2022, there were 1.4 million job openings in the accommodation and food services sectors for only 565,000 unemployed people in that field – even if the latter all got jobs, there would still be nearly a million unfilled vacancies. The construction industry is facing the same situation. It had only around 390,000 unemployed workers in mid-2022 for about 434,000 vacancies. Demand is clearly outstripping supply.

This situation is particularly hard for regions whose economies depend a lot on these immigrant-driven industries. Florida, whose economic pillar is tourism, is struggling to find workers. The Boca Raton magazine even reports that some restaurants in the state are having to use robot waiters. A professor of hospitality management at Florida Atlantic University, Peter Ricci, says that the industry has to work on its image in order to look like a rewarding post-pandemic field in the eyes of young people. 

However, other analysts think that the solution lies in making legal economic immigration easier. Slightly over a quarter of Florida's hospitality staff was comprised of immigrants back in 2018; it might not be possible to find US-born workers for all the 300,000 jobs this 26% represented. Writing for Brookings Institution, the academic Dany Bahar and policy analyst Pedro Casas-Alatriste say it's essential to embrace undocumented workers from Central and South America as valuable workers in the American economy.

Bahar and Casas-Alatriste believe that if the US stops mass deportations and increases the pathways through which these immigrants can gain legal status, the country's labor shortage problem will be largely solved. Bahar emphasizes that most undocumented immigrants are young, between 18 and 39, and do not have a college degree. They can hence be trained for jobs in hospitality, food services, construction, or any other field that's struggling to recruit. Many could be trained as truck drivers and port workers to help solve the current supply chain problems, says Bahar. 

This situation could be an opportunity for other foreign workers too. For example, students at hotel management schools around the globe could apply for internships in Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado or Hawaii, all states with a large hospitality industry. Because of the labor shortage, they are more likely to get accepted for work placements and to even be offered long-term employment contracts there.