Expat Magazine

Why Import Workers in a Bad Economy?

By Ovid @OvidPerl
When discussing various laws related to immigrants, I invariably hear someone say "we don't want immigrants taking our jobs".  And these aren't even racists worrying about that. It's natural when your country has a serious unemployment problem to wonder why in the hell your government would make it easier for workers to move there.
The problem, frankly, is that politicians don't explain the subject very clearly. I won't speculate as to why they don't, other than to note that the topic is rather boring for many people. However, it's important and because people keep asking this question, it deserves an answer. I've already talked a bit about how laws covering immigration and emigration often have little to do with the data, but importing workers into a high-unemployment area can make perfect sense.

Why import workers in a bad economy?

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

There are several types of unemployment, such as frictional and cyclical unemployment. In the case of highly skilled workers, the government is trying to address structural unemployment, a type of unemployment which is very durable and hard to fix. Imagine you have a company and it's doing really well and you need to hire a new system administrator, a DBA, two top-notch C++ developers and a front-end developer. Plenty of people apply, but no one has the skills you need. That's structural unemployment: when available workers skills do not match available jobs.
The common rebuttal is "train them!" But this has several problems. First, businesses need these employees now, not after a years of training. So people say "OK, we'll patch the problem now and then invest more in universities to deal with this." Patching the problem now means importing highly skilled workers (or letting your businesses suffer).
People sometimes still don't believe this, but I'll give you an example. Years ago I was applying for a job with a small company that was nonetheless very well known in their field. The owner of the company was interviewing me and he showed me a custom programming language they had designed to make life easier for their customers. After glancing about at a programming language I had never seen before, I turned to the owner and asked him "do you know what an SQL injection attack is?" I showed two different vectors they had for it. He was stunned. He looked at me and said they had this problem for years but had only discovered it two weeks ago. I got a job offer out of that (which I declined).
Even if you train people really, really well in my field, most of them won't be able to do that without a plenty of experience (many top-notch devs read my blog, so it probably won't seem too remarkable a feat to them, but it is for someone who doesn't know the field). That's why your country may have high unemployment and highly skilled workers still get imported: we can bring immense value to an enterprise.

Beggar Cat

Gratuitous cat picture
I took this while on vacation in Corsica

OK, fine. That's OK in the short term, but what about the long term? What happens at university? You can't force people to study for these highly skilled professions and, as it turns out, they're generally not doing that. Students aren't graduating with engineering, maths or physics degrees ... at least not at the rate they're studying art history or philosophy (I'm not bashing the latter two. If that's what you want to study, fine, but there's still a demand for skilled workers). Why aren't students going for high demand/high pay jobs? I haven't the foggiest notion (but if you want to move to another country, you know what to do!)
And if you could convince them to study those high demand skills, you find out that some don't have the aptitude (there are some studies in my field which unfortunately back this up, but the scope of the problem is unclear) and those with the aptitude may decide they don't like the field no matter how much they are paid (One programmer I worked with in Amsterdam was a medical doctor, but he decided he hated it).
In short, you need willing and qualified workers and the Universities aren't putting out enough of them, If you decide to beef up your university system, you then have to ask where that money's coming from and you have another political fight on your hands, but even after years of study, the graduates will still likely need experience in their field to get qualified. This is not an easy problem to solve.
Finally, you have the problem with economic growth. When I mentioned the example of your business needing to hire several new skilled workers, imagine a booming economy with thousands of businesses in the same boat. You can't supply the labor as fast as the market demands it. These people don't appear from nowhere. So either you turn your economic boom into a bust or you import the skilled workers. If you do import the skilled workers, your economy can continue to grow and offer opportunities beyond just the skilled jobs.

Paul in the Pool

My friend Paul messing about in the
pool in the Corsican manor we rented

Working against many readers of this blog is the fact that most companies want to hire local labor because they understand the process and the risk is far lower. It's not like they're saying "oh, I'll just import someone from another country". That can be very risky and companies know that, but it's my experience in talking to employers who are struggling to find workers that their resistance to importing them is because the laws make it very difficult or confusing.

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