US Manufacturing Needs More Highly Skilled Immigrants Getty Images

US Manufacturing Needs More Highly Skilled Immigrants

The HB-1 visa program should be expanded to allow specialized workers without bachelor's degrees to work in the United States.

It is no secret that America has a shortage of skilled machinists and toolmakers; IndustryWeek has been reporting on it for years. It’s even more the case when you look for machinists with advanced CNC skills who can work directly from 3-D models to program, set up and make complex parts. I experience this dearth of advanced talent firsthand in my business, and I would like to propose a solution that could accelerate a fix to the problem. 

In early 2014, I started ZYCI CNC Machining because I saw an opportunity in the market to build a machining business that leveraged technology to be very responsive, providing quotes within hours and delivering complex, tight tolerance parts within days. The market has responded well, and there is no shortage of customer demand. But my greatest challenge to scaling ZYCI CNC Machining is not customer acquisition or access to capital as it is for many businesses. It is access to skilled and experienced talent.

The reason we have the shortage is well-documented. When American companies started closing factories and moving the jobs to low-cost countries to take advantage of the labor arbitrage, manufacturing was no longer a wise career choice. Parents and counselors advised high school graduates to get liberal arts degrees and go into professional service jobs, not go into jobs where they got their hands dirty and produced products.  As such, the trade schools shuttered their manufacturing-related programs due to lack of enrollment, and the companies left tried to survive by hanging onto and maintaining employment of their essential workers. They could not afford to invest in training the next generation themselves. Therefore, our country’s manufacturing know-how that created the tremendous wealth in America skipped a generation.

Trade schools have since revived their programs and companies are hiring apprentices. Those are definitely steps in the right direction, but they are too slow and will take too long to have meaningful impact on the needs of today’s manufacturing businesses. It takes years of experience to learn the machining and toolmaking trades. Further, you need very experienced people for the apprentices to train under in order to learn the skill, finesse and tricks of the trade.

We need to bring manufacturing back to America now, not in 10 years.  But, if somehow the winds (or policies) changed and companies started bringing their manufacturing orders back to America, the talent and infrastructure to support it would not yet be rebuilt. Any reshoring effort would be for naught.

Now, if the talent we need isn’t in America, where is it? The talent is abundant in Asia because that’s where all the manufacturing work went. Asian countries haven’t just been manufacturing products at a torrid pace; they have been manufacturing skilled talent as well. We need that talent. And I know from doing business for many years in China, many Asians would jump at the opportunity to live in America for a few years.

I decided to test my theory and ran an advertisement in Taiwan for experienced machinists and was very specific about the skill-sets needed. I lost track of all the seemingly qualified responses. I felt like I had struck a talent gold mine. In contrast, I constantly run that same advertisement in America and only occasionally get a response from person with the skills and experience needed.

In all fairness, I do get a lot of responses from young people wanting to learn the trade and we’ve hired some of them, but it will take years for them to hit stride. Plus, we need more of the experienced people for them to learn from. Unfortunately, I have yet to find enough highly skilled CNC machinists here in the states and I still have several jobs going unfulfilled, for which I continue to run advertisements across multiple channels.  

After receiving so many great responses from Taiwan, I contacted an immigration attorney and asked what I would need to do if I wanted to hire a couple of them for two years. He basically told me it was not going to happen. I asked him about all the computer programmers that get H-1B Visas to work in America. I argued that skilled machinists can do more for our economy and job creation than computer programmers can. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 98.2% of all H-1B Visas granted in 2012 were to people in computer-related fields (and I suspect many companies are importing those workers for the wrong reasons, to replace American workers with cheaper ones).

The lawyer then informed me that with the exception of fashion models (go figure), a person must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to qualify for an H-1B.

I don’t think any of the qualified and experienced machinists that applied to my advertisement from Taiwan had bachelor’s degrees. They had hands-on experience. If an exception can be made for fashion models, we should be able to make one for highly skilled and experienced manufacturing talent. It would help bring manufacturing back to America, increase net job creation and reverse the trend of displacing an American worker with someone cheaper.

While I fully admit that I am not a government policy expert, I would encourage Congress to make a temporary H-1B exception for highly skilled manufacturing workers. I may be missing an important point out of ignorance, but I care about our country, our workers, our way of life and our generations to come. The only way to fix many of the problems we are facing is to rebuild our manufacturing sector and put people to work. When people have meaningful work, pride and purpose cures many of the issues we see in the news and shake our heads at each day. Low-cost countries stole our manufacturing base and our quality of life. It’s time to turn the tables and use the talent they advanced to help us rebuild our manufacturing sector.   

Mitch Free can be reached at [email protected]

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