President Trump’s Immigration Plans Jolt Staffing Strategies

Travel limits, visa changes will reshape talent acquisition

By Steve Bates March 2, 2017
President Trump’s Immigration Plans Jolt Staffing Strategies

The Trump administration's approach to immigration is forcing companies to rethink and revise their talent acquisition strategies.

As of March 1, employers were awaiting a revised executive order on travel to the U.S. from several countries and anticipating guidance from the White House on H-1B visas and other visas that allow foreign nationals to come to the U.S. to work.

These changes—combined with the overall message that the administration is sending on reducing immigration—are adding uncertainty to an already fierce battle for talent. "Recruiters are very concerned about making a commitment to someone," said Austin T. Fragomen Jr., chairman of the executive committee of law firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy. "There's a tremendous amount of consternation about where this is going to end up."

During the 2016 presidential campaign and since Donald Trump was elected, he has emphasized an "America first" agenda intended to create jobs for U.S. workers and to bring back jobs lost to foreign shores. While fighting terrorism has been the primary reason given for the travel restrictions—which have since been halted by judges—the executive order has created turmoil for recruiting and business travel. Promised changes in visa policies would have an even greater impact on staffing strategies, experts say. While the White House prepares its plans, several bills designed to restrict work visas have already been introduced in Congress. Greater use of the E-Verify system to screen potential employees might also be on tap.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump Administration

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· SHRM's post-election coverage
· Trump's work policies · First 100 days

"The administration wants to show that they are complying with what they promised," said Giselle Carson, a shareholder with the Marks Gray law firm in Jacksonville, Fla. Though the White House's initial version of the travel ban encountered political and judicial opposition, the new version likely is being crafted more carefully. "They're learning," added Carson.

However, the uncertainty engendered by the administration's approach to immigration "is affecting us. It will continue to affect us for some time."

Foreign nationals are a critical source of talent in the tech sector but also in other industries, including finance, health care, education and hospitality. A survey report released in February by immigration services provider Envoy found that 63 percent of U.S. employers describe foreign nationals as extremely important or very important to their company's talent acquisition strategy. That's up from 42 percent a year earlier. In addition, 59 percent of respondents said they expect their demand for employees from outside the U.S. to increase.

Where Are the Workers?

A central issue is whether there are enough people already in the U.S. who can perform the jobs that many companies have been filling—or trying to fill—with foreign nationals. "There is a myth that the people we need are out there" in the U.S. workforce now, said Carson. "Maybe 1 percent of them are. What I hear from clients is: 'I cannot find the talent.' "

"I've seen employers with open requisitions for over a year," said Russell Ford, a principal in the law firm Ford Murray in Portland, Maine. "These employers pay at or above the prevailing wage. They're just not finding the workers."

Steven J. Lindner, Ph.D., executive partner and officer of The WorkPlace Group, a recruiting firm based in Florham Park, N.J., noted, "It's not enough to say we have created more jobs if we haven't created the people to do those jobs."

Lindner said that the new direction in immigration policies provides an opportunity for employers to build better workers. Mentorships and corporate training programs can help. "Employers can identify those competencies and individuals who are really motivated" and train them to do technical jobs, he said. "Employers are doing it. [But] they are not doing it enough."

People with college degrees in fields such as history and anthropology are becoming certified pharmacy technicians with just a few months of training, Lindner said. Some technology firms and other companies are partnering with universities and community colleges to educate workers in the skills needed for specialty positions. But the process is slow, and not enough young Americans are attracted to tech careers.

"I wish that we would spend more time cultivating individuals' passion for technology," said Tom Borghesi, chief operating officer of Philadelphia-based staffing firm Open Systems.

It remains to be seen whether the changes that the White House favors will actually help more U.S. workers get jobs. Experts say that companies are going to fill vital positions and perform essential tasks any legal way that they can. Among their options: hiring more employees to work overseas, moving or expanding offices outside the U.S., or shifting tasks to firms and individuals outside the U.S.

"Companies don't necessarily have to move jobs; they can outsource the work," Lindner said.

Business Travel Cut

Because of the Trump administration's efforts to restrict people coming to the U.S., business travel has been impacted. Some firms are unwilling to send certain employees abroad for conferences or short-term assignments because of the fear that they—and perhaps their families—will not be able to return. "They're doing meetings by Skype or sending someone else in their place," Ford said.

Hiring foreign nationals is one way to support diversity in U.S. businesses, but that will suffer if hiring foreign workers is not clearly supported by U.S. policy, Fragomen said. "If you make the U.S. an undesirable location because of the unpredictability, it sends a very negative message. Big corporations represent the attributes of their employees. What will be the impact on them? They may be asking: 'What's coming next?' "

"The big issue now is the prioritization of H-1B visas," for which demand already far exceeds supply, Fragomen added. "It will be potentially of much greater consequence to business than the travel ban."

The entrepreneur economy—and the overall economy—are at risk, some experts say. A majority of new patents in the U.S. are being registered by non-U.S. citizens. Immigrants and their children have been responsible for some of the most successful U.S. startups, which have created jobs for many U.S. workers. Some of those companies were at the vanguard of efforts to block the initial travel ban in the courts.

The Trump administration's early actions and statements send a message to talented foreign nationals that "You're not welcome," said Carson. "We don't want to send a message that we're closing our doors and closing our borders" to those who can help the U.S. thrive, she said. "We're treading in very dangerous waters."

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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