Sean Hackbarth Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


July 26, 2021


Being a nation of immigrants isn’t just part of America’s identity, it’s part of the growth engine that’s made us the most powerful and prosperous country in the world.

But today our immigration system is broken and in desperate need of repair.  

While for many years, the Chamber has talked about immigration’s national implications, it is foremost a local story. It’s the story of families, of small towns, and of local communities. It’s the story of businesses and industries that have been created and prospered because of the ingenuity of an immigrant and the opportunity to start a new business. 

At a recent Chamber event, Putting Communities First: How Immigration Reform Will Drive Economic Growth, business leaders described how the lack of reform hurts their communities and impedes America’s global competitiveness.

The Numbers Tell a Discouraging Tale 

Some stark numbers illustrate the workforce shortage employers face in every region across all industries. 

  • In May there were 9.3 million workers unemployed and 9.2 million job openings. As the number of unemployed closes in on the number of job openings, employers will have to look beyond the native workforce. May’s Worker Availability Ratio–the ratio of available workers to job openings–was 1.2, similar to what it was before the pandemic.
  • The U.S. can’t meet demand for seasonal workers. In the first half of FY 2021, the Labor Department certified that American employers had 126,943 seasonal employment opportunities they could not fill with American workers.  That is almost twice as large as the statutory cap for the H-2B temporary worker program. This affects landscapers, seafood processors, forestry companies, construction firms, among many others, many of which are small businesses.
  • The U.S. can’t meet demand for high-skilled workers either. In June, the federal government announced over 300,000 applications for 85,000 high skilled temporary H-1B visas it will issue in FY 2022.
  • Less than half of small businesseswho are looking for workers can find them, a poll by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and MetLife found.

Regional Economies Feel the Pinch 

This inability to find enough workers affects state and local economies. 

In Las Vegas, recovering from pandemic lockdowns has been difficult, especially for hospitality businesses like restaurants, hotels, and resorts. “One local restaurant had to close one of their two restaurants because they can’t find the workers to handle the increased demand,” explained Mary Beth Seward, President and CEO of the Vegas Chamber. “And they’re one of hundreds of stories.” 

Fewer hours means less revenue and a poorer customer experience, which hurts the reputation of a tourist-dependent region. “You’re seeing longer wait times at restaurants and for hotel rooms to be cleaned. There’s a huge lack of Uber and Lyft drivers. This all impacts Las Vegas’ tourism-based economy,” said Seward. 

Immigration can play a critical role, because in Nevada immigrants account “for nearly two-fifths of all workers in the hotel and food services industry as well as nearly a third of those in the arts, entertainment, and recreation industry,” according to the American Immigration Council. 

Related: Delaware Shore Small Businesses Struggle to Stay Afloat Amid Worker Shortage 

Wisconsin faces a similar situation. “Many of our prime destinations just don’t have enough workers. For example, the Wisconsin Dells, the waterpark capital of the world, caters to Illinois, they normally get about 5,000 student visas, this year they were only able to get 1,600,” said Kurt Bauer, President and CEO of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. 

But it goes beyond the tourism industry. Bauer noted that the dairy workforce is dominated by immigrant labor, and Wisconsin manufacturers rely on immigrant workers. According to the American Immigration Council, 6% of Wisconsin’s labor force were immigrants in 2018, and 9% of manufacturing workers were immigrants. 

Employers Struggle to Find Workers  

Immigration role in the workforce shortage crisis also hampers individual employers. 

For many it means lost revenue. “Without the typical number of summer work students we hire we’re anticipating needing to adjust our schedule and operating times and possibly having a 30% revenue hit in August as a result, which is devastating,” said Denise Beckson, of New Jersey-based Morey’s Piers and Beachfront Water Parks. 

For employers seeking higher-skilled workers, the situation is similar. “There are 2.5 million job openings now that we don’t have the talented, skilled individuals to take those jobs. And we can’t train our American workforce fast enough,” said Linda Moore, President and CEO Technet. “We’re just not graduating enough college students to take these jobs that are open all across America.”  

The answer is improving the skills of native workers along with immigration reforms. “It’s that combination of homegrown talent pipeline plus immigration that has gotten us to where we are today and is what we need to keep us on top,” Moore added. 

Related: The Chamber’s America Works initiative addresses the worker shortage crisis facing America’s employers. 

Immigration and America’s Competitiveness 

Immigration must continue to play an important part for the future of America’s vibrant, growing economy. “Enabling more than 2 million immigrants each year to come to the U.S. would lead to a $2,500 increase in GDP per capita by 2050,” concluded 

But limiting this source of talent would be an unnecessary barrier to progress. “If we have fewer working-age adults, it means less production and even less innovation, which is the key to economic growth,” said Andrew Tisch, Co-Chairman of the Board and Chairman of the Executive Committee, Loews Corp. 

As for employers, they deeply appreciate the contributions immigrant workers provide. “The people that came to our country their diverse perspective is incredible, especially being in the marketing and advertising business,” explained Kenny Nguyen, CEO, ThreeSixtyEight, and Member, Chamber Small Business Council. “It’s super valuable to have people with different views than yours.”  

Being a nation of immigrants isn’t just part of America’s identity, it’s part of what has made us the most powerful and prosperous country in the world. For local communities and businesses of all sizes, across all industries, immigration has to be part of the solution for future economic growth and sustained prosperity. 

About the authors

Sean Hackbarth

Sean Hackbarth

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.

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