What Everyone—Except the US—Has Learned About Immigration
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What Everyone—Except the US—Has Learned About Immigration

Washington remains divided over allowing more foreign workers while global rivals lower barriers to ease persistent labour shortages

Wed, May 17, 2023 8:23amGrey Clock 7 min

Migration to affluent countries is at record highs, and some nations short of workers are overcoming political opposition to open their borders even wider, hoping to fill jobs and ease inflation.

Government actions to attract foreign nationals for skilled and unskilled jobs have spread from Germany to Japan and include countries with longtime immigration restrictions and some with a populist antipathy to streams of foreign workers.

The U.S. remains an outlier. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have arrived through back channels, but the country isn’t openly welcoming more legal workers, despite the tight labor market. That hesitancy carries economic costs, including persistent worker shortages and wage inflation, according to economists and some U.S. officials.

Unemployment is at a record low 4.8% across the 38 largely affluent countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. These and other nations report a long list of open positions from truck drivers to baggage handlers to miners.

Beyond being needed to fill pandemic-driven labor shortages, migrant workers are in demand to fill the gap left by retiring baby boomers and declining populations, economists and Western officials say. “The labor forces of richer countries are hollowing out,” said Michael A. Clemens, an economics professor at George Mason University.

Governments across affluent countries are balancing the economic need for more workers with the political reality that very few electorates are enthusiastic about high levels of immigration.

In Europe and North America, the working-age population is expected to decline from 730 million to 680 million over the next two decades, according to United Nations estimates. Such places as South Korea and Taiwan stand to lose more than half their workforce over the coming decades. The working-age population in sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, will increase by 700 million by 2050, according to U.N. projections; in Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.N. estimated an increase of 40 million by midcentury.

For many wealthier countries, labor surpluses abroad are hard to resist. The global labor imbalance, in effect, is driving foreign workers into the open arms of nations that need them.

Around five million more people moved to affluent countries last year than left them, up 80% from pre pandemic levels, according to a Wall Street Journal data analysis. The Journal examined 10 countries that received most of the migration, including the U.S., Germany, the U.K., Canada, Australia and Spain. Migration experts say it is the highest number ever reported. That total includes about two million refugees from Ukraine. Even excluding that surge, net migration was significantly higher than 2019 levels, according to the data.

Germany is rewriting immigration laws to bring in more college graduates as well as blue-collar workers under a new points-based system. Points will be awarded based on age—younger people receive more—educational qualifications, work experience and German-language competency. Canada announced plans late last year to take in nearly 1.5 million more migrants by 2025. Western Australia recently sent a delegation to the U.K. and Ireland to recruit tens of thousands of workers, including police, mechanics and plumbers.

South Korea plans to admit 110,000 low-skill foreign workers this year to work in industries such as farming and manufacturing, up nearly 60% from last year’s quota. Japan, which is opening new visa paths for high-skilled foreign workers, announced in April plans to offer blue-collar workers—including those at factories and farms—a chance to extend their stay and even bring their families. Both countries have been longtime skeptics of immigration.

Spain amended its laws last year to allow more foreign workers from outside the European Union to fill blue-collar jobs left open by a shrinking working-age population. José Luis Escrivá Belmonte, Spain’s minister of inclusion, social security and migration, estimated that his country will need to add 300,000 foreign workers a year to keep the economy running and support the national pension system.

Spain’s unemployment rate is 13% and has been around that level or higher for 15 years. Mr. Escrivá said unemployed Spaniards tended to be age 50 or older and not necessarily suited to fill open jobs needed in sectors such as agriculture, construction or film production.

José Antonio Moreno Díaz, an official at Spain’s Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions, which represents over a million workers, including migrants, said training opportunities for higher-paying jobs should be offered to citizens. “We are not against bringing in real needed foreign workers,” he said. “But let’s pay attention to unemployed people in the Spanish labor market.”

Opponents in various countries warn of citizens losing jobs to outsiders willing to work for less money. Some say the cost of providing newcomers with healthcare, education and other public services outweighs the economic benefits, especially for low-skill workers who pay little in taxes.

Others argue that such immigration is a quick fix that slows economies in the long term.

“Labor shortages are very healthy,” said Mikal Skuterud, an economics professor at University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “They force employers to use existing workers more efficiently and invest in technology, that’s all good stuff.”

Finland and Greece are building hundreds of miles of new land barriers to prevent illegal migrant crossings. In Italy and Sweden, voters recently elected governments with a more restrictive approach to immigration, and both are planning reforms to slow both legal and illegal migrant arrivals.

More jobs, higher pay

The U.S. hasn’t made any significant immigration reforms in 33 years, and the last serious attempt in Congress dates back a decade or more. Few issues are so politically divisive in Washington, making any chance of a policy overhaul seem unlikely, according to immigration experts.

Despite restrictive immigration policies, migrants seeking work in the U.S. are finding jobs more quickly and at higher pay than at any time in recent memory. Tens of thousands of people crossed into the U.S. from Mexico illegally and were arrested over the past 10 days, while some 20,000 were detected by various forms of surveillance but not caught, the U.S. Border Patrol chief wrote on Twitter.

In the U.S., the limit on H-1B visas available for highly skilled workers has changed little since 1990. Presidential administrations over the past 15 years have clamped down on illegal border crossings without creating new legal immigration pathways, prompting more urgent discussions about immigration policy and the labor shortage, said Giovanni Peri, chairman of the economics department at the University of California, Davis where he directs the Global Migration Center, whose recent research favours more immigration.

U.S. Border Patrol agents made a record 2.2 million arrests along the Mexican border in the 2022 fiscal year, up from 1.65 million arrests in 2021. The migrant crossings were driven, in part, “because the U.S. economy is screaming out for their labor,” said Mr. Clemens, the economist.

New channels have recently opened. More than 300,000 Ukrainian refugees entered the U.S. since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, many through a Biden administration program called Uniting for Ukraine. That number is more than the total number of refugees admitted into the U.S. through legal channels over the previous seven years. In North Dakota, energy companies are tapping Ukrainians to fill jobs in the Bakken oil fields.

Around 450,000 migrant refugee workers—largely from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Latin America—entered the U.S. legally in 2021 and 2022 and are working under temporary government protections in industries with labor shortages, according to an April report by FWD.us, a pro-immigration think tank. Those workers are estimated to have filled about a quarter of total job openings this year in such industries as construction, food services and manufacturing, the report said.

The labor shortage is pushing inflation in affluent countries where employers, competing for workers, are raising wages to hire and keep them. “I do think more migrant workers would reduce the inflation rate,” said Spencer Cox, the Republican governor of Utah, which has a 2.4% unemployment rate, slimmer than even the U.S. rate of 3.4%.

Gov. Cox and Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana, which is also short of workers, want to rally other governors in a long-shot proposal for Congress to give states a measure of authority over legal immigration.

The U.S. and other countries are divided about how to limit illegal immigration while keeping a pathway for a flow of potential employees for various industries. A plurality of Americans think the U.S. should admit fewer migrants, according to recent Gallup polls.

To gather bipartisan support for increased legal immigration, especially for skilled workers, Utah Gov. Cox said the government needs to demonstrate better control over the U.S.-Mexico border. “Scenes of tens of thousands of migrants streaming across the border in a way that could threaten national security,” he said, “make it harder to have that higher-level conversation.”

Learning the ropes

Mathias Senn, a butcher in Germany’s wealthy Black Forest region, posted job ads in newspapers and online, seeking to replace four of 10 employees who were preparing to retire. “There were no interested people,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

Last year, Mr. Senn hired an apprentice from India, taking advantage of a new law that allowed businesses to hire unskilled people from outside the EU. Local business associations are helping hundreds more workers arrive from India. India’s unemployment rate is around 8%, compared with about 3% in Germany.

Mr. Senn’s 22-year-old apprentice, Rajakumar Bheemappa Lamani, makes about 940 euros a month, around $1,020, while learning the ropes. Mr. Lamani said it was difficult to save money because of the high cost of living, but he hoped to stay.

Mathias Senn, right, a butcher in southwest Germany, and his apprentice Rajakumar Bheemappa Lamani from India. PHOTO: DOMINIC NAHR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Germany needs to add around half a million immigrants a year in the next decades as the baby boomer era draws to a close, said Herbert Brücker, head of migration research at the Institute for Employment Research, a federal agency. “We have in Germany about two million vacancies, an absolute peak historically,” he said.

Young people in Germany aren’t interested in manual work, said Joachim Lederer, a butcher in Weil am Rhein, a town of 30,000 by Germany’s borders with France and Switzerland. His son, who studied and worked at the University of California, Berkeley, and Cornell, is a professor of mathematical statistics.

Mr. Lederer recently hired an apprentice from India who had studied computer science, and he has anointed a young Italian immigrant to take over the butcher shop when the time comes.

The U.K. added a record half-million new migrants in the year ended June 2022, even after exiting the EU, which made it more difficult for EU citizens to obtain visas.

Alan Manning, former chair of the U.K. Migration Advisory Committee, which consults government officials on immigration policy, said people accepted the idea of allowing foreign workers if their skills are needed. But some “get anxious about immigration when they perceive it to be out of control,” he said.

Amjed Nizam, a Sri Lankan design engineer trained in Hong Kong, looked for an exit overseas when Sri Lanka’s economy imploded last year. The 29-year-old discovered a new U.K. program that grants two-year work visas to recent graduates of top universities, even without a job offer.

U.K. authorities approved Mr. Nizam’s online application within three weeks, he said. He arrived late last year, found a job with a broadcasting company and now lives in London with his wife and daughter.

Paul Papalia, a government minister in Western Australia, said the region desperately needs workers in both public and private sectors to serve the mining industry, which is booming from global demand for battery-powered vehicles that rely on locally mined lithium, cobalt and nickel.

Mr. Papalia led a delegation in March to pubs and other spots in the U.K. to try to lure as many as 30,000 British workers with the prospect of better salaries and sunny weather. Nearly 70,000 job seekers expressed interest so far, including 1,100 applications to join the police force, he said.

Only about a fifth of Australians supported more immigration, according to a poll last year by the Lowy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Sydney. Mr. Papalia said voters in his state nonetheless support his recruitment efforts. “They ask, ‘Where are the people who are going to help us build our house?’ ”


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Why Is Everyone So Unhappy at Work Right Now?

U.S. employees are more dissatisfied than they were in the thick of the pandemic

Wed, Nov 29, 2023 5 min

Americans, by many measures, are unhappier at work than they have been in years.

Despite wage increases, more paid time off and greater control over where they work, the number of U.S. workers who say they are angry, stressed and disengaged is climbing, according to Gallup’s 2023 workplace report. Meanwhile, a BambooHR analysis of data from more than 57,000 workers shows job-satisfaction scores have fallen to their lowest point since early 2020, after a 10% drop this year alone.

In interviews with workers around the country, it is clear the unhappiness is part of a rethinking of work life that began in 2020. The sources of workers’ discontent range from inflation, which is erasing much of recent pay gains, to the still-unsettled nature of the workday. People chafe against being micromanaged back to offices, yet they also find isolating aspects of hybrid and remote work. A cooling job market—especially in white-collar roles—is leaving many professionals feeling stuck.

Companies have largely moved on from pandemic operating mode, cutting costs and renewing a focus on productivity. The disconnect with workers has managers frustrated, and no quick fix seems to be at hand. Those in charge said they have given staff more money, flexibility and support, only to come up short.

The experiences of workers like Lindsey Leesmann suggest how expectations have shifted from just a few years ago. Leesmann, 38 years old, said she soured on a philanthropy job after having to return to the office two days a week earlier this year.

Prepandemic, she would have been happy working three days a week at home. “It would have been a dream come true.” Still, her team’s in-office requirements seemed like going backward, and made her feel that her professionalism and work quality were in doubt. Instead of collaborating more, she and others rarely left their desks, except for meetings or lunch, she said. Negative feelings followed her home on her hourlong commute, leaving her short-tempered with her kids.

“You try to keep work and home separate, but that sort of stuff is just impacting your mental health so much,” said Leesmann, who recently moved to a new job that requires five in-office days a month.

No more honeymoon

The discontent has business leaders struggling for answers, said Stephan Scholl, chief executive of Alight Solutions, a technology company focused on benefits and payroll administration. Many of the Fortune 100 companies on Alight’s client list boosted spending on employee benefits such as mental health, child care and well-being bonuses by 20% over the pandemic years.

“All that extra spend has not translated into happier employees,” Scholl said. In an Alight survey of 2,000 U.S. employees this year, 34% said they often dread starting their workday—an 11-percentage-point rise since 2020. Corporate clients have told him mental-health claims and costs from employee turnover are rising.

One factor is the share of workers who are relatively new to their roles after record levels of job-switching, said Benjamin Granger, chief workplace psychologist at software company Qualtrics. Many employers have focused more on hiring than situating new employees well, leaving many newbies feeling adrift. In other cases, workers discovered shiny-seeming new jobs weren’t a great fit.

The upshot is that the newest workers are among the least satisfied, Qualtrics data show—a reversal of the higher levels of enthusiasm that fresh hires typically voice. In its study of nearly 37,000 workers published last month, people less than six months into a job reported lower levels of engagement, feelings of inclusion and intent to stay than longer-tenured workers. They also scored lower on those metrics than new workers in 2022, suggesting the pay raises that lured many people to new jobs might not be as satisfying as they were a year or two ago.

“What happened to that honeymoon phase?” Granger said.

John Shurr, a 66-year-old former manufacturing engineer, took a job as an inventory manager at a heavy-equipment retailer in the spring in Missoula, Mont., after being laid off during the pandemic.

“It was a nice job title on a pretty rotten job,” said Shurr, who learned soon after starting that his duties would also include sales to walk-in customers.

When Shurr broached the subject, his boss asked him to give it a chance and said he was really needed on the showroom floor. Shurr, who describes himself as more of a computer guy, quit about a month later.

“I feel kind of trapped at the moment,” said Shurr, who has since taken a part-time job as a parts manager as he tries to find full-time work.

Bridging the distance

Long-distance relationships between bosses and staff might also be an issue. Nearly a third of workers at large firms don’t work in the same metro area as their managers, up from about 23% in February 2020, according to data from payroll provider ADP.

Distance has weakened ties among co-workers and heightened conflict, said Moshe Cohen, a mediator and negotiation coach who teaches conflict resolution at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. He has noticed more employees calling co-workers or bosses toxic or impossible, signs that trust is thin.

Cohen’s corporate clients said their employees are increasingly transactional with one another. Some are coaching workers in the finer points of dialogue, such as saying hello first before jumping into the substance of a conversation.

“The idea of slowing down, taking the time, being genuine, trying to actually establish some sort of connection with the other person—that’s really missing,” Cohen said.

One Los Angeles-based consultant in his 20s, who asked to remain anonymous because he is seeking another job, said that when he started his job at a large company last year, his largely remote colleagues were focused on their own work, unwilling to show a new hire the ropes or invite him for coffee. Many leave cameras off for video calls and few people show up at the office, making it hard to build relationships.

“There’s zero humanity,” he said, noting that he is seeking another job with a strong office culture.

The share of U.S. companies mandating office attendance five days a week has fallen this year—to 38% in October from 49% at the start of the year—according to Scoop Technologies, a software firm that developed an index to monitor workplace policies of nearly 4,500 companies.

Some companies have reversed flexible remote-work policies—in large part, they said, to boost employee engagement and productivity—only to face worker backlash.

Not all the data point downward. A Conference Board survey in November 2022 of U.S. adults showed workers were more satisfied with their jobs than they had been in years. Key contingents among the happiest employees: people who voluntarily switched roles during the pandemic and those working a mix of in-person and remote days. But that poll was taken before a spate of layoffs at high-profile companies and big declines in the number of knowledge-worker and professional jobs advertised.

At Farmers Group, workers posted thousands of mostly negative comments on the insurer’s internal social-media platform after its new CEO nixed the company’s previous policy allowing most workers to be remote.

Employees like Kandy Mimande said they felt betrayed. “We couldn’t get the ‘why,’” said the 43-year-old, who had sold her car and spent thousands of dollars to redo her home office under the remote-work policy. She shelled out $10,000 for a used car for the commute. A company spokesperson said that not all employees will support every business decision and that Farmers hasn’t seen a significant impact on staff retention.

During a brief leave, Mimande realised she no longer felt a sense of purpose from her product-management job. She resigned last month after she and her wife decided they could live on one salary.

She now helps promote a band and pet-sits. “It’s so much easier for me to report to myself,” she said.


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