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Obstacles to hiring foreigners undermining US competitiveness; Neither political party represents the views of employers, according to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit

A majority of employers in the US believe their companies are affected by immigration issues, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit survey. While public debate has centred on illegal immigration and undocumented labourers, employers say obstacles to hiring highly skilled foreign workers are of greater concern. And most say that neither the Republican nor the Democratic party represents their views on immigration issues.

The survey, conducted in late-December and early-January, asked 500 US-based employers—senior executives and managers from a range of industries and company sizes—for their views on immigration issues. Among the findings:

A cross-industry issue. A majority of respondents say their company faces immigration-related challenges. This holds true across every industry surveyed except the public sector (see Table 1).

Table 1. Does your company face immigration-related challenges?
(Percentage answering, by industry)
  Yes No Don’t know
Agriculture and natural resources 81% 16% 3%
Healthcare, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology 79% 21% 0%
Technology and media 77% 21% 2%
Manufacturing 69% 31% 0%
All industries 66% 31% 2%
Retail, consumer goods and distribution 62% 32% 5%
Financial services 59% 37% 3%
Professional services 58% 42% 0%
Public sector 48% 50% 2%

Skilled workers are the top concern. For those facing immigration-related challenges, the most commonly cited are the bureaucratic challenges of hiring foreign skilled workers: 37% say there “aren’t enough visas for skilled workers” and an equal proportion say there is “too much red tape” in getting qualified foreigners approved for positions.

This is a problem, given that 24% say they face a shortage of native-born skilled workers (see Table 2). Unsurprisingly, more than three quarters of all respondents (77%, see Table 4) support immigration reform that would make it easier for highly skilled foreigners to work in the US. But unskilled staff are viewed as less of an issue—only 13% say they face a shortage of unskilled workers who can work legally.

Table 2. If so, which of the following immigration-related challenge(s) does your company face? Select all that apply.
There aren’t enough visas for skilled workers, so we face a shortage of such talent 37%
There is too much red tape getting qualified foreigners approved for positions 37%
We can’t find native-born workers with the skills we need 24%
Uncertainty about future immigration rules makes it hard for us to plan ahead 23%
Authorities are scrutinising us more carefully to make sure all of our workers are properly documented 20%
Our overseas competitors have the advantage of a better labour market 15%
There’s a shortage of unskilled workers who can work for us legally 13%
We face unfair competition against other companies that use undocumented workers 10%
Native-born workers at my company are losing their jobs to cheaper foreign workers (documented or undocumented) 8%
We are facing more penalties for hiring undocumented immigrants 7%
We have suffered security breaches as a result of having undocumented workers 3%
Other, please specify 4%

A matter of competitiveness. Respondents see US immigration rules as affecting the competitiveness of their companies and of the economy as a whole: 52% agree that their company needs its foreign employees to compete (versus 24% who disagree), and 59% agree that US immigration laws are making the country less competitive (versus 20% who disagree, see Table 3).

Table 3. Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
  Agree or strongly agree Neutral Disagree or strongly disagree
US immigration laws are making the country less competitive 59 % 21 % 20 %
Immigration policy is a critical issue for my company 52 % 27 % 21 %
My company needs its foreign employees (skilled or unskilled) to compete 52 % 24 % 24 %
Foreigners are willing to work harder than Americans 52 % 23 % 26 %
Companies can find US citizens to take “dirty” jobs—they just don’t want to pay decent wages 42 % 22 % 36 %
If costs of healthcare and benefits were lower, companies wouldn’t be tempted to hire illegal workers 35 % 28 % 37 %
Foreigners have better education and training for high-skilled jobs 29 % 31 % 39 %
Foreigners are more entrepreneurial than Americans 27 % 34 % 39 %
Tighter restrictions on illegal immigrants would benefit my company 24 % 34 % 43 %

Carrots and sticks. Given a list of immigration policies, respondents favoured ones that would ease restrictions on immigration and on hiring foreigners (see Table 4). However, most also support measures to strengthen enforcement of immigration rules. Indeed, a majority of respondents (57%) favour a combination of policies to ease restrictions and tighten enforcement. They may regard both as factors affecting their competitiveness—lenient policies would allow them to hire the people they need; tighter enforcement would prevent their competitors from gaining an unfair advantage.

Table 4. Which policies would you support? Select all that apply.
A. Make it easier for highly skilled foreigners to work in the US 77 %
B. Make it easier for immigrants to enter the US legally 57 %
C. Increase penalties on employers of undocumented workers 52 %
D. Strengthen border patrols to keep out illegal immigrants 49 %
E. Give existing illegal residents a “path to citizenship” so that they can become legal 48 %
F. Promote investment in Mexico and central America to boost employment there 47 %
G. Deport illegal immigrants 33 %
H. Build a fence the entire length of the US-Mexican border 21 %
Table 5. Analysis of respondents in Table 4.
Support only measures to tighten enforcement of immigration rules1 12%
Support only measures to ease immigration restrictions 2 31%
Support a combination of measures to tighten enforcement and loosen restrictions 57%
Support at least one measure to tighten enforcement 68%
Support at least one measure to ease restrictions 88%

1 Items D, E, G and H in Table 4.2 Items A, B and C in Table 4.

No winning political party. Neither party speaks to the immigration concerns of executives in the US—almost half of respondents believe neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties better represents their views on immigration (see Table 6). Analysis of the data shows that respondents supporting tighter enforcement of immigration regulations are more apt to identify with Republicans than Democrats, and respondents supporting an easing of restrictions are more likely to identify with Democrats than Republicans. However, most executives in the US support a mix of policies—making it easier to hire needed foreign workers, but also enforcing the laws fairly. And in the view of US employers, neither party reflects this balance.

Table 6. Which political party do you think better represents your stance on immigration?
Democratic 25 %
Republican 21 %
Neither 47 %
Don’t know 7 %

This survey was conducted between late-December 2007 and early-January 2008. The survey targeted executives and managers currently working in the US; unqualified respondents (i.e., front-line employees and people currently working outside the US) were excluded from the final dataset. In total, there were 501 qualified responses (margin of error +/- 4.4), representing a spread of industries and company sizes. Respondents were drawn from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s panel of 30,000 executives around the world who have agreed to take part in research surveys on an occasional basis.

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