Navigating Labor Shortages: The Role of Immigrants and the Potential of Schedule A

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Transcript, JobMakers, Guest Lindsay Milliken, November 30, 2023

Denzil Mohammed: [00:00:00] I’m Denzil Mohammed. Welcome to JobMakers. There are about a million international students at U.S. colleges and universities at this very moment, many of whom would love to use the skills and knowledge they gain at our schools in jobs available here in this country. At the same time, there are way more job openings than there are candidates, with unemployment at a record low, but a dire need for more talent, more people. What are we missing here? For Lindsey Milliken, Immigration Fellow at the Institute for Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank that researches industrial and scientific progress, there is a clear way to bridge this gap. It’s called Schedule A, out of the Department of Labor, a list of in-demand occupations where employers can more easily and quickly hire immigrant professionals.

But not only is it not being used to ease today’s scarcity; it also hasn’t been updated in more than 30 years. Lindsay believes that with immigration such a contentious issue, the inaction around Schedule A is all but predictable. But this does not serve America’s interests, as you learn in today’s episode of JobMakers.

Denzil Mohammed: Lindsay Millikan, Immigration Fellow at the Institute for Progress in Washington, D. C. welcome to the JobMakers podcast. How are you?

Lindsay Milliken: Great. Thank you so much for having me.

Denzil Mohammed: So, we often talk to entrepreneurs on this podcast, but the economic integration of immigrants is a huge topic and it affects every corner of this country. And the state of the economy and employment is very interesting in the U.S. right now. What exactly is the state of employment and jobs in the U.S. today? And have we seen anything like this before?

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a really great question. And we’re at a really unique point in history right now, as we’re transitioning away from the COVID-19 pandemic, the height of lockdown. And I think that a lot of people are feeling a lot of whiplash from that. And the economy certainly is. In April 2020, for example, the unemployment rate was actually almost 15%, which is the highest it’s been in 75 years. So that is crazy. And now in three-ish years, we have rebounded, and our employment rate is holding very steady at 3.8%. And the last time that we saw an employment rate low like that was in 2000, and then before that, it was 1969. It’s not common to be in such a strong market for labor in this country. And in addition to the unemployment rate, we’re also seeing record high job openings since the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Labor started their job openings and labor turnover survey.

In 2002, the greatest number of job openings was in November 2018, which was 7.6 million. If you look at it today, we are at 9.6 million job openings. So, record low unemployment, and record high job openings.

Denzil Mohammed: What are some of the occupations or industries where you, where the forecast is most dire? Where are the job openings projected to just increase and we don’t have the people to fill those jobs?

Lindsay Milliken: The high-level national, even industry-focused data doesn’t really capture what people are feeling, in the trenches, so to speak. But based on the information that we do have from the data and also from employers, the biggest hits have been in hospitality. There’s been a huge demand in hospitality workers recently, and there’s also a significant need in healthcare, particularly related to elder care, and in education, which we’ve heard a lot about recently is being a teacher in this country can be quite challenging. One industry that we think is probably going to see more demand in the future is probably going to be manufacturing. There’s been a lot of effort at the Biden administration level to jumpstart manufacturing in this country, particularly in semiconductor manufacturing. So, this is something we think is going to be a growing area of focus in the next few years.

Denzil Mohammed: I live in Massachusetts, and, during the summer, the Cape doesn’t have enough workers to support the tourism industry. So, it’s a very valid point you’re making there. And of course, healthcare, elder care, as you said, is hugely important. It’s only going to become a larger and larger industry as the Boomers age into retirement and beyond. We’re talking about this as an American issue, but it’s also an immigration issue. How do immigrants fit into this situation, or how do they not fit into this situation?

Lindsay Milliken: Immigrants play a really important role in our economy, and there’s a growing focus on their role as the U.S. is grappling with this very high level of labor demand. Just to take healthcare as an example again, in 2021, there was a survey conducted and they found that 18 percent of healthcare workers were immigrants — 26 percent of physicians and surgeons were actually born in a foreign country. And when you think about home health aides for our aging population, almost 40 percent of those are foreign born. So, this is in even just looking at healthcare, a massive role for immigrants in this country. And. Not only we want to think also about not just the current workers that we have, but the pipeline, we want to think about our international students, because that is a very valuable font of talent that the U.S. has that we’re not taking advantage of as well as we could. It’s very challenging to transition from being an international student to being a worker here in this country. And so, there is a lot of people who are being educated here, but then going home. For example, the Department of Education found that international students earn 40 percent of the STEM masters degrees, and 43 percent of the STEM PhDs, and a significant portion of these people want to stay and work and build their career here, but it’s quite challenging for them to stay here.

Denzil Mohammed: So, you’ve written, co-authored an op-ed, with Josh Smith from the Center of Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, where you spoke about one tiny thing that most people don’t know about that could be incredibly useful in filling these jobs, and it’s not going to be complicated to do it. It’s called Schedule A. What is it and how is it supposed to be used?

Lindsay Milliken: Schedule A is a regulation that the Department of Labor oversees, and to better understand how it is placed within the immigration system, I want to just back up slightly and talk a little bit about how DOL interacts with the immigration system in general.

So, there are three agencies that deal with the immigration system here in the United States. It’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Department of State. And those two are the ones that we think about the most. But when it comes to employment-based immigration, the Department of Labor actually plays a very important role on the employer side of the immigration system.

So, there are two elements that D.O.L. oversees: They’re called the PERM process, and the prevailing wage process. So, PERM stands for Permanent Labor Certification. And this is essentially a way that the Department of Labor determines whether hiring a foreign worker is going to negatively impact American workers who are already here.

When an employer wants to hire a foreign worker, they have to prove to the Department of Labor that they can’t hire an American to do this job. They’ve tried to hire, but they can’t find one. And prevailing wage essentially is the employer proving that they can pay the immigrant the wage that is appropriate for the job, and also matches the wage for that particular geographic area.

Schedule A itself deals with the PERM process and this process is only for green cards. It doesn’t increase the number of green cards per year, but it essentially says we, the Department of Labor, have looked at the data and have found that there are some occupations that have such a high demand for labor that you employers don’t have to prove that you can’t hire an American because we are already acknowledging that there aren’t enough workers in these areas.

So, this Schedule A list, is a list of those occupations. It originated in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and it used to consider occupations like engineers, nuclear scientists, physicists, people with advanced degrees. This was like cutting edge talent that we wanted to bring to the U.S. but currently, the list hasn’t been updated in 30 years and only contains nurses and physical therapists right now.

Denzil Mohammed: And as you said, it’s not an increase in the number of green cards. It’s an increase in the expediting of that process, right?

Lindsay Milliken: Yes, that’s correct. So, the PERM process takes about a year and several thousand dollars of work by the business itself. So, imagine you meet a person that you want to hire, but then you actually have to wait a year and a half to actually get them working in your office. This is something that helps streamline that process a little bit and also reduces administrative burden on the department of labor side, because then the people at the agency don’t have to go through a bunch of paperwork for a job where everyone acknowledges there are not enough Americans to do it.

Denzil Mohammed: So how do you suggest we use Schedule A in this kind of economy?

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a great question. What we are working on at IFP is we want the Department of Labor to update this and make sure that they put in a process that’s data driven, and also ensures that the list is updated regularly from now on.

Denzil Mohammed: And you make it clear that this is, these are situations where they just aren’t enough American workers, but does the whole concept of bringing in foreign trained talent, put American workers at any sort of disadvantage?

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a great question, and this is really important, and at IFP we care a lot about this question itself, which is why right now we’re working on a research publication to develop a data-driven approach that the Department of Labor could use to update Schedule A while not negatively impacting Americans who are already here and also immigrants who have come here previously, who are working here now.

Individuals working in occupations eligible for Schedule A still have to meet the requirements for their green card, and the employer still has to prove that they are paying the person a prevailing wage, the appropriate wage for that job, that matches the wage of other people employed in that job.

It’s still a very rigorous process and it still takes quite a long time. They’re still screening at USCIS, the Department of State, and the Department of Labor. So, this is something that we’re really taking very seriously. And the list itself, by its own nature, is only supposed to include occupations that do not negatively impact U.S. workers. And this is something that’s very important to us because as occupations go onto the list, we think that they also should come off when there is a lower demand. This is something that should be a living list of occupations and having, while it is small right now, having only two occupations on the list for 30 years is not accurately representing the demand that we’re experiencing now.

And we don’t want this to be updated and then never updated again. We want to make sure that we’re responsive to the needs of the economy and also make sure that we’re not harming the economic standing of workers who are already here.

Denzil Mohammed: I’m thinking of the responsiveness of certain other countries when it comes to job opportunities and immigration. I think of Canada who with their point system, able to, in a sense, do exactly what Schedule A would do, which is be responsive to the economy and fill in the gaps when those gaps arise. Now, particularly in the op-ed that you wrote, you present an argument for both sides of the immigration divide.

It’s very easy to have to come up with anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant arguments, when you think of the economy as a very simplistic thing, which of course it is not, it is incredibly complex. How would you explain this to someone who perhaps has anti-immigrant views, maybe a bit ambivalent, and, I’m thinking of more doctors having access to more people. Everyone benefits from that. How does the wider community benefit from more foreign trade workers participating in our economy when needed?

Lindsay Milliken: This is a very important question to ask and it’s something that I think about a lot coming from a rather blue collar area of New York State is that when we’re talking about immigration, we really need to and a lot of other policy areas, but for immigration in particular, we have to really meet people where they are and acknowledge the fact that there is a lot of uncertainty today in the world, and that uncertainty just seems to increase.

And there are a lot of people who are concerned about their future and the future of their children. As we acknowledge that, we need to emphasize the fact that, as you say, the economy is very complicated. It’s not a static system. And it’s not a zero-sum situation. The people who come here also increase demand.

So, they have to buy the same types of things that we buy. They go to the dentist, they get their hair cut, they buy cars, go to the restaurants. So, they’re not only doing a job here and fulfilling demand for a worker, but they’re also creating more demand. So, businesses can be growing with the addition of immigrants to our communities. They create more jobs. So that’s, and immigrants themselves could also be starting their own businesses. Research shows that immigrants are 80 percent more likely to start their own businesses than Americans. And almost 44 percent of the 2022 Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants. So, this is a significant number of immigrants who are not only, fulfilling demand for worker, but they’re also generating their own demand.

And as I said before, there are people who are incredibly talented and who have passed numerous screening background checks were done by the agencies. So, this is something that’s expensive and time consuming and they came here because they really identify with our values, and they want to contribute to the economy and build lives for themselves and for their community.

Denzil Mohammed: That’s a wonderful illustration of who an immigrant is. It’s someone who wants to create a better life. It’s someone who is not coming here as a blank slate. They’re coming with talents and skills already. And as you describe Schedule A and the different departments that are involved, we can see that it’s basically a foolproof process. There are checks and balances, there are screenings, and they take the livelihood of the American worker very seriously. This is not something that the government takes flippantly. And we’ve been doing this a long time, we have processes and systems in place. And as you so wonderfully demonstrate, the wider community benefits from this economic, increased economic output.

And, the fact that immigrants are inherently entrepreneurial, so they’re creating jobs, they’re providing goods and services that we need, they are innovating, and creating these incredible Fortune 500 companies. So, in this op-ed that you co-wrote that I’ve been referencing, which is in the Salt Lake Tribune, you cite the example of Utah and the way that the state integrates its foreign trained workers. Do you want to just flesh out this example of what is Utah doing, that is benefiting Utah when it comes to immigrants?

Lindsay Milliken: I think Utah is a great case study for this because, after we spend so much effort and money to get an immigrant here to the country, it’s a big culture shock still for this person.

I mean, they’ve moved to a completely different place. The culture is completely different, and Utah in particular is spending a lot of effort to help them assimilate to help them get jump started into their job quickly. And one example of this is that professional licensing is a big challenge for people who have very important skills who are coming here like doctors, for example, to continue the healthcare example is that these people are trained often extensively in their own home countries, but those licenses don’t transfer to the United States, to get a U.S. license, a lot of times you have to do additional training. It can be very expensive. Taking the licensing exams can be very expensive. For doctors, you have to go to medical school all over again. Utah this year, Governor Cox signed a bill that allows the state agencies to issue professional licenses to foreign professionals who can prove that they have the relevant skills without having to go through all this extensive training.

Another example of things that Utah is doing to help immigrants settle into their new communities is that Utah actually is one of the only, one of the few states in the U.S. that has an office dedicated to immigration and the integration of new Americans into the workforce. So, these types of this office does a myriad of services, such as navigating healthcare, the housing, making sure that you can find a place to live education for your kids, pursuing citizenship, and the whole process that is other challenges that come up when you settle in a new country. This is something they’re very hands on with and it’s kind of shocking to me. But there are actually fewer than 20 of these offices in the whole country. So, there are not, there is no office of new Americans in every single state. But there is some momentum this year, I think, to try to establish offices that can help with integration at the congressional level. In July of this year, actually, Sen. Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Meng of New York, reintroduced bills to create a national office of new Americans situated at the White House level to harmonize this type of support across the country. And this is something that I think is a very valuable idea because, as I said before, bringing someone here from a new country is a big change. And we want to make sure that they can really feel comfortable, hit the ground running and stay here for the long term.

Denzil Mohammed: And I want to emphasize that, immigration has always been contentious, but before it became this contentious, Utah in 2002 signed in a bill that gave, undocumented immigrants in-state tuition. And we can draw a lot of contradictions with Texas. But Texas did the same thing in 2001. So, states know how to integrate their immigrants in order to get the best out of them and benefit from them.

There are many things that states can do, but also at the federal level regarding Schedule A. Lindsay, if we want to step back and take a broader view of the role of immigrants in American society and economy, it been a net benefit to the U.S. and how can we see it, shaping our future going forward?

Lindsay Milliken: It’s a great question. I think immigrants play such an important role in our society and in our economy, and other countries are recognizing this, that immigrants are playing major roles in their economies as well and are making adjustments actively as we speak to their own immigration systems to attract new workers.

We’ve always been a powerhouse of research, economic, and cultural development. Thanks to these immigrants that we’ve attracted, a recent example is Katalin Karikó from Hungary, who she just won the Nobel Prize for her research on mRNA vaccines. Sergi Brin, the co-founder of Google was Russian.

Andrew Carnegie, the magnate from the early 20th century, was Scottish and, for people who are really interested in fashion, Oscar de la Renta, who is a very popular with the first ladies is from the Dominican Republic. And this is just, these are just economic examples, cultural examples.

There are so many people who’ve played such a huge role. Alex Trebek, big favorite of mine, was Canadian. Jackie Chan is from China and Audrey Hepburn is Belgian. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was from Austria. I mean, there’s so many examples of people playing huge roles in U.S. development and cultural advancement that are coming from other countries. And I think the important part about this is that these people were the successful ones. These ones were the lucky people who actually made it through our immigration system. And I mean, a lot of people talk about how broken the immigration system is today and how impossible it is to fix.

So just imagine. If we actually were able to make changes to our immigration system, what sorts of really interesting, innovative people we could attract here. And I want to hammer this point really home is that the people that we know and. the immigrants that are our neighbors and our friends, we’re the lucky ones. There are so many people who don’t have the means or don’t know how to navigate our immigration system. Many people need to hire a lawyer to navigate our immigration system and that’s so expensive. So, we’re really missing out a lot on this really interesting group of people, this really talented group of people that don’t have the means to apply, or are not sure where to start, or have been scared off by how the system is designed.

And so, we need to really think critically about how we can make changes, even when it seems like the political situation is not conducive to immigration changes, particularly at the legislative level. And I think Schedule A is like one of these concrete improvements that we can work on now that is at the executive level.

It’s something the Department of Labor could do tomorrow, and just hasn’t. Worked on in decades. This is something that is concrete and could improve the lives of a bunch of people trying to come here tomorrow. So, the immigration system is full of different solutions like this. And that’s something at IFP we’re really working on very hard is trying to come up with these concrete solutions so that we can get more innovative people to come here that wouldn’t have otherwise.

Denzil Mohammed: The op-ed is called The U.S. Government Can Help Solve Labor Shortages Today. Why Won’t It? It’s in the Salt Lake Tribune. Lindsay Milliken, Immigration Fellow at the Institute for Progress in Washington, D. C. Thank you for joining us on the JobMakers podcast.

Lindsay Milliken: Thank you so much.

Denzil Mohammed: Jobmakers is a podcast about immigrant entrepreneurship and contribution produced by Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, and the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden, Massachusetts, a not for profit that gives immigrants a voice. Thank you for joining us for today’s deep dive into the many ways high skill immigrants are needed to keep the U.S. on the leading edge of innovation. If you know an outstanding immigrant we should talk to, email Denzil, that’s D E N Z I L I’m Denzil Mohammed. See you next time for another episode of JobMakers.

This week on JobMakers, host Denzil Mohammed interviews Lindsay Milliken. Milliken underscores the current unprecedented combination of low unemployment and high job openings, particularly in sectors like hospitality, healthcare, and education. She addresses the vital role immigrants play in the workforce, and advocates for leveraging Schedule A, a regulation that expedites the green card process for occupations facing high labor demand. Milliken co-authored an op-ed in the Salt Lake Tribune that proposes updating Schedule A to reflect contemporary demands and streamline the immigration process, pointing to Utah as a positive example of state-level immigrant integration.


Lindsay Milliken, an immigration fellow at the Institute for Progress, has a background in high-skilled immigration and science/technology policy. Her experience spans public, private, and nonprofit sectors, including roles at the Delegation of the European Union and the Federation of American Scientists. Her published work can be found in the University of Chicago Law Review Online, Scientific American, the NYU Journal on Legislation and Public Policy and Inside Higher Ed. Lindsay holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from American University.