Help Wanted: Our Workforce Needs Americans of All Skill Levels

Slowly — very slowly — America is getting back to work. And when you look at the representation of foreign-born workers across our economy, it is clear America remains a nation of immigrants.

Shoulder to shoulder, generations of Americans stand with families of new Americans, their collective prosperity depending on immigrants and immigration to the United States.

Increasingly, a skilled home health care aide from Vietnam will be just as important to our elderly as a skilled physician from Colombia. But the U.S. immigration debate focuses on the "high-skilled" worker.

This narrowing of the debate undermines the value of work. It does so by creating a double-edged sword that separates the contributions of "high-skilled" and "low-skilled" workers, which deepens social and economic divides across all communities.

Evidence is building that this separation is misguided. The Brookings Institution and the Partnership for a New American Economy recently released an eye-opening study showing the importance of immigrant workers across the economic spectrum.

Indeed, health care tops the list.

Immigrants, the study says, "are nearly twice as likely as native-born workers to work as physicians and surgeons, but also nearly twice as likely as native-born workers to work as home health aides." It also finds that immigrants are highly represented in about half of the occupations the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to grow the most through the end of the decade.

But as long as the rhetorical divide persists, its long-term consequence is an America that does not recognize the significance of skilled workers across the labor market. The linkage between hard work and the American Dream — our national identity — will be strained.

Whether our families came to this country as doctors or ditch diggers, they immigrated because of our nation's belief that hard work creates the opportunity for respect, wealth, and success. In fact, Americans cherish the hard work of our immigrant ancestors, believing the less-admirable parts of our history as a nation of immigrants will not be repeated.

We look back at the days of "Irish Need Not Apply," for example, as a time of prejudice and hardship. It was a time when immigrants struggled for opportunities and, eventually, were rewarded for toiling in the most difficult of circumstances.

Now we celebrate the fact that people of Irish ancestry exceed the national average when it comes to holding a bachelor's degree or higher; households headed by Irish-Americans have a higher median income than households overall and lower rates of poverty.

Not unlike Irish, Italian, or German immigrants in the early 20th century whose stories we are quick to celebrate, today's Asian, Latino, and African immigrants will bring an era of New American Exceptionalism because of the full range of their contributions.

Yes, the global economy challenges America's competitiveness and emphasizes the need for workers with advanced degrees. BLS projects that professional and business services will add 2.1 million jobs between 2008 and 2018.

In the long term, improved training and education of native-born workers and youth will help meet this critical economic need. In the near term we need improved immigration policies for workers with advanced degrees.

But there is overwhelming evidence that our economy needs skilled workers across the labor market in order to prosper. If we create different values for different workers, we weaken our economy and block the journey from nanny to engineer for future generations.

According to BLS, four of the top 10 sectors adding jobs between 2008 and 2018 will be in health care and social-assistance industries. Employment in offices of physicians, home health care, services for the elderly and persons with disabilities, and nursing-care facilities is expected to grow by 2 million jobs — all on top of reported labor shortages on farms and dairies across the country.

By ignoring the needs of industries and the contributions of workers in fields that require less education but just as much skill as those of their "high-skilled" counterparts, policymakers create a gap in public understanding, reducing support for training and education of the current workforce.

Rather than forging a new consensus on immigrants and America, they take the path of least resistance and kick the can of rational immigration solutions down the road.

Simply put, we need the skilled farm worker as much as we need the skilled engineer. As we age, we will rely on the skilled home health care aide as much as on the talented surgeon.

We are an exceptional country because we harness the best of America and recruit the hardest working from around the world.

If we stop doing that, we'll stop being the America we know.

Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. Noorani has more than a decade of successful leadership in public-policy advocacy, nonprofit management, and coalition organizing across a wide range of issues.

For 30 years, the National Immigration Forum has advocated for the value of immigrants and immigration to our nation. In service to this mission, the Forum promotes responsible federal immigration policies, addressing today's economic and national-security needs while honoring the ideals of our Founding Fathers, who created America as a land of opportunity.