As unemployment stubbornly remains above 9 percent, there are increasing calls for businesses to invest more and create more jobs. After all, corporate profits have recovered since the depth of the recession that began in 2008. Typically, by this stage of a recovery, job growth has accelerated and unemployment has started to fall more substantially than is currently the case.
Increasingly, people look to businesses and ask us why things appear to be different this time. The answer is complex but important, both for the companies we serve and for the country as a whole.
One important insight comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which currently estimates that the unemployment rate for individuals with only a high school diploma is 10 percent. In contrast, unemployment for individuals with a college degree or more is only 4.6 percent. We have high unemployment for one group of Americans and much stronger employment for another.
This reflects an economic climate different from the past. For generations, economic migration was marked by people moving to find the right jobs. Now, technology makes it possible to work from anywhere. As a result, jobs often move for the right people. In the new global economy, the countries with the best talent are likely to attract the best jobs.
A recent Georgetown University study captured the impact of this phenomenon. In 1973, only 28 percent of the country’s jobs required a post-secondary education. By 2008 this had risen to 59 percent, and by 2018, it will reach 63 percent. Now more than ever Americans need to “skill up” in order to compete.
Unfortunately, our current path is less than promising. The same Georgetown study estimated that by 2018, the U.S. will need 22 million new college degree holders, but will fall short by at least 3 million.
What does this mean for those in the business community and for the government policies that support job creation?
First, we need to recognize that the unemployment problem isn’t just a jobs problem. It also reflects a skills gap that the country needs to close.
This underscores the critical importance not only of efforts to strengthen K-12 education, but also to expand higher education. While governmental action needs to lead the way, public-private partnerships also will play a vital role. For example, Microsoft recently joined a dozen other companies in announcing new investments to help improve K-12 education. At the state level, Microsoft and Boeing announced investments of $25 million each in a new Washington state public-private scholarship fund to help more students go to college.
While education improvements are critical, they won’t come quickly. For this reason, we also need to reform the country’s high-skilled immigration policies and attract some of the best people from elsewhere in the world, putting them to work in the United States. A strategic, high-skilled immigration policy does not represent a zero-sum competition for jobs with American citizens. To the contrary, high-skilled immigration can help create more jobs here for U.S. citizens and foreign nationals alike.
Given the sweeping changes in the global economy, it’s notable that there has not been a major change in U.S. immigration law since 1990. We need to modernize our immigration laws, especially to address the backlogs that are plaguing our green card processes and discouraging talented foreign nationals from contributing to the U.S. economy. We also need to modernize student visa policies to attract and retain the world’s top talent.
Ultimately, a successful path to fuller employment has implications not just for those in government, but also for people in business. It will require a focus not just on economics, but also on law. It’s likely that our clients will be asked to think more broadly and creatively. It’s likely that lawyers will need to do so as well.
Brad Smith is SVP, general counsel and corporate secretary of Microsoft Corp.