Few policy issues create more political division, are more misunderstood, and need more reasonable and rational discussion than immigration. And few are as important to the future of the manufacturing workforce.
Roughly 45 million people, or 13.7% of the total U.S. population, are immigrants today, both legal and illegal. This is not a historic high—that occurred in 1885 when 14.8% of the populace was not born here. In the half-century following World War I the percentage declined to 4.7% but has risen steadily back to pre-World War I proportions since 1970.
While there are legitimate concerns about illegal immigration, there is no turning back the clock in terms of the demographic changes occurring in this country and throughout the globe. This past year U.S. birthrates fell for a fourth consecutive year, and fertility rates hit an all-time low – 1.73, or below the rate a population can sustain itself at the current rate. By 2040, those under 18 will account for 20.6% of the population, while those 65 and older will account for 21.7% – the first time in our history that senior citizens will outnumber our youth.
This means a steadily diminishing supply of employees, as well as workers that can pay into and cover the payments to retired Social Security beneficiaries (whose trust fund will run out of cash by 2034). The fact that the United States has people clamoring to enter and become citizens gives us a competitive advantage over virtually every major industrial nation in the world. Most other advanced economies have both lower fertility rates and lower immigration rates.
So, we have a choice: either this country takes action to reverse the trend and increase its number of workers (with more emphasis on trade, technical, and skilled-service training), or we will witness a permanent economic demise such as Japan has started to experience. Even with the challenge of unauthorized immigration, let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face. We need a steady stream of young, highly educated, and skilled immigrants, who are looking for economic and entrepreneurial opportunities, to choose the United States as their home in the coming decades.