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Reviving Schedule A: A Path to Easing Labor Shortages Through Immigration

As the United States continues to experience labor shortages in various areas, the Department of Labor (DOL) has an effective tool at its disposal to help address it. Regularly updating Schedule A – a list of occupations for which DOL has determined there are not sufficient workers in the U.S. – would allow businesses to more easily fill critical vacancies through immigration.

In December 2023, DOL published a request for information (RFI) to solicit expert input on which Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and non-STEM occupations should be included in the list. This post examines why now is such an opportune time for action, and how we can effectively update Schedule A to tackle labor shortages now and in the future.

A Brief Overview and History of Schedule A

Schedule A, created by DOL under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965, is a list of occupations for which  there are insufficient U.S. workers who are “able, willing, qualified, and available.” If a U.S. employer’s vacancy falls within one of these occupations, they do not have to obtain an individual “labor certification” from DOL to sponsor a foreign national for legal permanent resident status.

This exemption is valuable to businesses because obtaining labor certification is a complex process involving a supervised domestic recruitment effort to prove to DOL that there are insufficient able, willing, and qualified U.S. workers to fill the role they intend to sponsor the immigrant to work in, and that hiring foreign workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed workers. The multi-step process can take well over a year, is exacerbated by growing backlogs, and can cost businesses thousands of dollars.

In its original regulation in 1965, Schedule A contained just three categories of employment, but the rule allowed the secretary of labor to amend this list “at any time, upon his own initiative”. DOL used this authority in subsequent years to update the list based on economic needs. In 1991, following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, the Labor Market Information Pilot Program intended to strategically study labor market data to enable informed annual revisions to Schedule A. In 1994, however, the program expired without any of its conclusions implemented. Today, only nurses, physical therapists, and immigrants of exceptional ability are listed on Schedule A, with no changes having been made for more than 30 years.

The Time is Ripe for an Update

The negative impacts of labor shortages are wide-ranging, with US Chamber of Commerce analysis showing nine of 13 industry classifications facing shortages in January 2024. As businesses struggle to fill vacancies, economic growth is restricted and consumers face fewer choices and higher prices.

The impacts are not just economic. Beyond just nurses and physical therapists, our healthcare sector is among the worst affected by labor shortages, with BPC analysis identifying a long-standing shortage of direct care workers including personal care aides, certified nursing assistants, home health aides, residential care aides, and psychiatric aides. Hospitals are crying out for nurses from abroad, without which they cannot staff new wings or expand units. This has drastic implications for the well-being of Americans.

Labor shortages also have severe consequences for our national security and international competitiveness. Shortages of technicians, computer scientists, and engineers are restricting our development of semiconductors, putting the U.S. Artificial Intelligence (AI) lead over China at risk.

It is clear that urgent action is needed to address labor shortages. Given the lack of congressional action to raise visa caps, updating Schedule A, which can be done without legislation, is one way to direct our existing visa allocation most efficiently and effectively.

Tackling Shortages Now and in the Future

There are several approaches to updating Schedule A in a way that addresses current and future labor needs. Among these is the use of a data-driven approach to understand where the most pressing labor shortages are – such is the recommendation of a research paper from the Institute for Progress (also see our podcast episode with the report’s lead author). The paper considers a variety of labor market metrics to develop an index of the shortage severity of a particular occupation, closely matching the approach the U.K. takes to its Shortage Occupation list, which has been copied by several countries. The research emphasizes STEM and physical and mental health occupations as the most pressing shortage areas.

One benefit of using a transparent, data-driven, largely automated approach to identifying shortage occupations is that it would enable regular updates of Schedule A at low cost. But a purely automated approach cannot tell the whole story of the United States’ pressing shortages and labor needs. More nuanced analysis will need to complement a mechanical approach and could be outsourced to an Independent Permanent Commission on the Labor Market, acting as a neutral arbiter and saving DOL time. It’s vitally important that DOL commits to updating Schedule A regularly, as emphasized in a bipartisan letter from four U.S. senators to Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su.

Updating Schedule A isn’t a silver bullet. Statutory caps on employment-based visas will still be a limiting factor in addressing shortages, and Congress will need to raise these to enable more workers to immigrate. This is even more vital as the U.S. population continues to age, exacerbating current labor shortages. Even so, DOL’s RFI is hugely welcome. Here’s hoping it’s the start of a revival for Schedule A.

Former BPC Intern Anna Hobbins contributed to this blog.

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