Help Wanted

Why business should worry about the battle over immigration reform.

Several years ago, managers at heavy industrial manufacturer Ingersoll-Rand Co. were looking to hire 60 welders to help build heavy drilling machines in Texas. What they got was a lesson in immigration law. Human-resource managers at the Bermuda-headquartered company scouted the United States for workers, even looking into shipyards to see if they could lure anyone away. But welders aren’t as plentiful as they once were. The Army-trained welders of the baby-boom generation are starting to retire and few are taking their place. Apparently, lethal electric currents, high temperatures, and toxic gases just aren’t the career draws they used to be.

After several months of intense recruitment, Ingersoll-Rand’s search yielded only a handful of U.S. workers. The company did find one ready source of skilled welders; unfortunately, those welders all lived south of the Rio Grande. The welders in Mexico didn’t qualify for the small number of visas the government reserves for seasonal laborers. They also lacked college degrees, which meant they were not eligible for the H1-B visas that supply Silicon Valley with its legions of Asian and Russian programmers.

Ultimately, Ingersoll-Rand was forced to go with a smaller team to complete the project. Not surprisingly, the company missed its customer’s initial delivery deadline. Says Elizabeth Dickson, Ingersoll-Rand’s adviser for immigration services: “There’s no legal way for us to bring in workers who don’t have a college education, even those who work for us in other countries.”

Ingersoll-Rand’s managers are not alone in their frustration. A growing number of American employers say that, when it comes to hiring, they’re boxed in: they can’t find the workers they need in the States and, because of immigration laws, they can’t hire enough workers from overseas. The health-care industry, for example, faces a dire shortage of nurses. In response, companies such as Harborside Healthcare, a Boston-based nursing-home operator, are recruiting from abroad. But without an increase in visa quotas, this safety valve won’t be enough to prevent a crisis. “Over the next 10 to 15 years, the nurse shortage is one of the single greatest concerns we have,” says Harborside CFO Bill Stephan. “If we’re going to care for the elderly going forward, at least one part of the answer will have to be a greater flow of immigrants.”

The need for foreign-born workers — both legal and otherwise — is creating new, unforeseen headaches for employers. Companies often wait years to get much-needed worker visas, when they can get them at all. Business managers say they are inundated with fraudulent work papers, putting them on the wrong side of the law and, increasingly, the receiving end of class-action lawsuits. What’s more, the government has provided no easy — or foolproof — way to know whether potential hires are actually in the country legally.

As a result, many companies — Ingersoll-Rand included — are pushing for a complete overhaul of the nation’s immigration system. “This system is very, very broken,” says Laura Reiff, a partner with Greenberg Traurig LLP, in Washington, D.C., and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition (EWIC), a business-backed organization. “We need a comprehensive reform bill that will deal with the real economic demand for immigrant labor.”

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