Opinion: Manufacturers Need More Immigration, Not Less

Trade schools are starting to revive their programs and manufacturers 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 tool-making trades. Further, you need very experienced people to train the apprentices to learn the skill, finesse and tricks of the trade.

So, if the talent we need right now isn’t in America, where is it? It is abundant in Asia because that’s where all the manufacturing work went. They 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 skillsets needed. I felt like I had struck a talent gold mine. In contrast, I constantly run that same advertisement in America and will only occasionally get a response from persons 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.

“If an exception can be made for fashion models, we should be able to make one for highly-skilled and experienced manufacturing talent that would help bring manufacturing back to America.”

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 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. The lawyer then informed me that, with the exception of fashion models, 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 that would help bring manufacturing back to America, further 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. The only way to fix many of the problems we are facing is to rebuild our manufacturing sector and put people to work. It’s time to use the talent in other countries that we helped advance to now help ourselves rebuild the U.S. manufacturing sector.

Mitch Free is the Chairman & CEO of ZYCI CNC Machining (www.zyci.com) and is the Founder of MFG.com, the world’s largest online marketplace for the manufacturing industry (fellow investors include Jeff Bezos and Fidelity Investments). Mitch also serves as the CEO of CloudDDM, a direct digital manufacturing company headquartered in Atlanta that’s partnered with United Parcel Service (UPS).