Lindsay Milliken and Josh T. Smith: The U.S. government can help solve labor shortages today. Why won’t it?

Updated Schedule A data should be used to help speed the visa process for occupations in shortage and make sure our immigration system addresses today’s labor market needs.

With an unemployment rate of just 2.3%, Utah has one of the most severe shortages of workers in the country. The state has only 51 workers for every 100 open jobs.

Protracted shortages can cripple businesses and worsen working conditions. Several industries are already suffering, especially health care. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, almost every county in Utah contained areas designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas for primary care, mental health and dental care, meaning there are not enough providers available to adequately serve the population. A February 2023 report by the American Immigration Council projected that Utah needs 1,095 additional primary care physicians by 2030 to match its growing population.

The federal government can help fix these shortages.

On June 28, a coalition of experts led by the Institute for Progress and joined by the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University urged the White House and the Department of Labor (DOL) to act. The coalition is pushing the federal government to take advantage of a nearly 60-year-old tool that could help alleviate labor shortages, but has been abandoned by DOL for decades.

Since 1965, the U.S. has maintained a list, known as Schedule A, of occupations experiencing shortages. Employers recruiting foreign workers in these occupations are eligible to receive streamlined authorization from the federal government. Without Schedule A, employers wanting to hire foreign workers have to prove that there are not “sufficient U.S. workers able, willing, qualified and available to accept the job opportunity in the area of intended employment.” But because the federal government already recognizes that workers in Schedule A occupations are in short supply, employers do not need to prove it themselves. That will mean faster processing times — cutting an average of 300 days worth of red tape.

Even those worried about immigration can celebrate Schedule A’s use. Employers still have to prove that they will pay the foreign worker a salary matching similarly employed U.S. workers. In addition, Schedule A designations do not increase overall immigration rates. It’s just a faster process for doctors, nurses and other professions we know to be in dire need.

Despite its potential, DOL has not updated the list since 1991. Today, it includes only nurses and physical therapists. Our proposal is simple — DOL should update Schedule A through a transparent, data-driven process every year. Government agencies already collect data about supply and demand conditions in occupations across the country. This data should be used to help speed the visa process for occupations in shortage and make sure our immigration system addresses today’s labor market needs.

No federal list of occupations in shortage exists. Creating this process can also help federal agencies involved in workforce training identify areas to support domestic training, as well. The government has an opportunity to use the data it collects more nimbly and ensure that domestic workforce training programs are as responsive as possible to worker and employer needs.

Smart federal revivals of Schedule A would also complement Utah’s promising efforts on immigration. Gov. Spencer Cox has called for using immigration to ease the labor shortage and established Utah as a leader in creating new Americans. The state has also made it easier for immigrants to earn a place in licensed professions — including many in health care. Federal reforms that open more pathways will prove doubly beneficial because Utah built the runway to capitalize on them already.

It should be a no-brainer for the U.S. government to use a tool that already exists to tackle labor shortages. With Schedule A, the U.S. can close its labor gap and ensure essential services. Swift action can support Utah’s industries and relieve pressure on workers who are stretched too thin. Utahns’ health and the health of the state’s economy can only benefit from attracting more health care providers from across the world.

(Lindsay Milliken)

Lindsay Milliken is an immigration fellow at the Institute for Progress in Washington, D.C. (@LK_Milliken)

(Josh T. Smith)

Josh T. Smith is a research manager for the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University. (@smithtjosh)