We Don’t Need More Skilled Workers, But Getting Some Would Be Nice

Companies that like to important skilled foreign workers via the H-1 B visa system have a tendency to engage in extravagant rhetoric about a “shortage” of skilled immigrants that practically invites headlines like Suzy Khimm’s “Do we need more skilled foreign workers?” The answer is no, we don’t. Life will go on without more skilled foreign workers. But we should get more anyway.

The reason is that when skilled immigrants come to the United States their productivity increases more than sixfold. That’s an awful lot and it creates a huge surplus that it’s absurd to just leave lying around on the floor. Claw some of that surplus back as a tax or fee and spending it on addressing side effects if you want, but you almost never see the option of that scale of productivity gains.

None of which is to say that the H-1 B visa system doesn’t have some problems. Most notably, I’d say it puts way too much power in employers’ hands. Give skilled workers temporary permission to work in the United States and let them work for whoever they want to. The current system makes your permission to work in the US conditional on working for a particular company. That lets the employer capture a huge share of the surplus and makes the situation unnecessarily problematic for complementary native-born workers.