Five Ways to Approach a Tight Labor Market Without Increasing Immigration

By David North on June 24, 2022

The left is calling for more migration — rather than paying workers higher wages — to solve the problems of the current tight labor market, as my colleague Mark Krikorian pointed out the other day in the New York Post.

But raising wages for low-income jobs, a good idea in and of itself, is only one of five different ways to cope with a tight labor market, and it may be useful to list and analyze the other four. They are:

  • Utilizing the untapped skills of adults no longer working or seeking work, as my colleague Steven Camarota writes about from time to time;
  • The automation of jobs where appropriate and economical;
  • Simply turning paid employment back into do-it-yourself projects; and
  • Remoting some work overseas, with the U.S. getting the work product without further straining our infrastructure. (I raise this point with some hesitation.)

Let me elaborate on the utility of the four last-named approaches, which in addition to not upsetting our immigration policies have some other, hidden advantages.

Better Utilization of Existing Potential Workers. Back in the days when organized labor was on the correct side of the immigration issue, the then-leader of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, the late Howard Samuels, used to tell people “a tight labor market is the worker’s best friend,” and he would elaborate to say that a tight labor market caused disadvantaged workers of all kinds to get jobs, and to get better jobs than before.

As a kid growing up during WWII, I could see what he meant. Women and Black people who previously had few opportunities in factories suddenly filled many such jobs. Rosie the Riveter, with her strong right arm, suddenly became not only employable, but a civilian hero. It was less obvious, but people with physical disabilities got opportunities that had not existed before, and younger retirees went back to work.

And all this happened when international migration was at an all-time low. We now have more than one million legal immigrants a year; in 1943 we had 23,725 new permanent resident aliens — that is less than 3 percent of our current flows.

The labor market then was so tight it squeaked; it was much tighter than it is now. Millions of young men, and some young women, were in uniform and thus had left the civilian labor market; if we could get by then without increasing immigration, think what we could do now.

Automation. Another, less obvious way to cope with some parts of the current labor market, but not all, is to create labor-saving systems for repetitive jobs. When the California growers learned that their cheap, docile bracero workers (mostly men from Mexico) would not be coming after January 1, 1965, they quickly cut their labor needs by turning to the mechanical harvest of tomatoes for the canning factories, though they still needed humans for the fresh market sector.

It is easier for industry to pull the strings they need to pull to get more workers from abroad than it is to tackle the technical and financial challenges of automation, and automation cannot touch many, many jobs, notably in the service sector.

Do It Yourself. I lived for a year, 1954, in a different country, one with a really tight labor market; I was in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, having left a job with a New York advertising agency to study at Victoria University College in Wellington. I had little background in labor matters at the time, but I quickly noticed that in New Zealand, as not in New York, there was no one around to shine your shoes — you did it yourself or you left them dingy. The stores shut tight at 6 p.m. And there was no shopping on Sundays. Most people mowed their own lawns.

These were all rational reactions to a tight labor market, one with very limited immigration at the time.

Currently, I live, as I have for the last 40 years, on a street in Arlington, Va. When I arrived, all the homeowners (or their kids) mowed their own lawns; now this is done by Central Americans, hopefully on TPS status. The current practice is a needless luxury for the well-to-do and their adolescent kids, and a reflection of a loose labor market.

Remoting. Another possibility has popped up during the Covid-19 years, and it could result in less international migration at the skilled level; if people on my street can work at home, rather than in downtown D.C., for instance, they could work almost equally as well from Canada or India.

While this would take jobs from Americans, as the high-skilled H-1B program does today, we would have their output but not their presence, a small step toward protecting our fading infrastructure, and keeping the population explosion down to a dull roar. I cannot be too enthusiastic about this prospect, but in the interest of completeness it must be listed among the ways to manage a tight labor market without bringing additional people to this country.

There are, in short, lots of ways to cope with a (probably passing) tight labor market without adding to the current high levels of legal permanent immigration, expanding foreign worker programs, and tons of newly arriving illegals.