Economist Gordon Hanson has spent his career analyzing the nitty-gritty of U.S. immigration policy. A professor at the University of California at San Diego, he’s examined Nafta’s impact on Mexican wages and whether the tax contributions of low-wage immigrant workers offset what the U.S. spends trying to keep them out, among many other subjects. Now he’s asking a question that’ll become critical if Congress passes immigration reform: How could businesses recruit and hire foreign workers more efficiently than they do under the current system?
His answer: Create a Monster.com for immigrants.
It’s an interesting idea. In economic terms, the current market for immigrant labor is highly inefficient. Companies find workers mostly through outside staffing agencies and word of mouth. A job placement site for foreign labor could give employers a sense of a worker’s skill set and background before he or she comes on board and a way to review references. Immigrants generally end up in jobs perceived as low-skilled, but in fact, they require varying degrees of ability that an employer may want to know about. Home health care, the U.S.’s fastest-growing job category and one that’s often staffed by immigrants, for example, requires that aides have an increasingly high degree of nursing expertise.
The concept could also offer workers more opportunities than they have under the current system. With the ability to post a résumé and references, they’d have a way to distinguish themselves from other workers competing for the same job. And they’d get a sense of the breadth of the job market that’s largely unavailable to them now. A worker in Oaxaca may hear through friends or recruiting posters that a poultry plant in Alabama is hiring, but she may not know that a similar factory in Chicago pays more than Alabama’s. Employers would have to compete for the best workers, which could raise working standards and wages.
The majority of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants estimated to be living in the U.S. already have jobs, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and due to the economic downturn, relatively few Mexican immigrants have made the dangerous trek over the border in recent years. But employers will start hiring again if the economy picks up. If immigration reform passes, immigrant workers might be harder to recruit. Under the guest worker deal that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO recently agreed to, immigrants will have the opportunity to apply for a green card after a year’s work. That means many may choose not to enter the U.S. illegally and instead try to do it lawfully. The border is almost certainly going to be beefed up if this deal is struck, so illegal labor could become scarcer. And finally, the Mexican economy is still growing at a clip. Even if the U.S. economy improves, economists don’t expect the number of Mexican border-crossers to reach the high levels of the early 2000s.
The upshot: A Monster.com site for foreign labor could make hiring easier and possibly even provide a template for allocating visas. Companies that get government permission to recruit five people, for example, could get on the site and hire them at will, rather than having to go through a lottery that comes around only periodically. Policymakers in Washington could use the site to make decisions about how many visas different types of work require.
Immigration reform will absorb lawmakers’ attention when they return next week from a recess. While they still have a lot of details to hammer out, there’s optimism in both parties that an overhaul is coming. If it does, Hanson’s concept is worth a look.