Jay Timmons inspects some of the equipment in the welding simulation lab at the Institue for Advanced Learning and Research. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

The numbers are big. They get counted different ways but no matter what’s being counted, they keep growing, and they all say the same thing, just louder and louder: We have more jobs than we have workers to fill them.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is concerned that Virginia has 300,000 jobs going unfilled.

Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, says that each month about 860,000 jobs in American manufacturing go unfilled, and the number is growing. “By the end of the decade,” he told a gathering in Danville this week, “more than 2 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled, costing the economy $1 trillion in 2030 alone.”

This worker shortage seems to have come upon us suddenly – and it has – but it’s also been a long time coming. The pandemic, and the so-called “great resignation” that it inspired, have merely accelerated a worker shortage that was going to happen anyway for demographic reasons. The short version: Baby boomers are retiring, which creates lots of openings. Meanwhile, the nation’s birth rate has been falling for years, so there simply aren’t enough people to replace them. It’s why colleges are worried about the so-called “enrollment cliff” and why you now see “help wanted” signs in places where you never saw them before. For the long version, you can read the column I wrote earlier this year: “Why the worker shortage is here to stay.”

Timmons, though, has a proposed solution, it’s just not one that’s politically popular enough at the moment. That proposed solution: We need more immigration, not less.

Before we go further, I should provide some context. Timmons is a conservative. He used to be chief of staff to George Allen, when Allen was governor and later U.S. senator. While the group he now heads is officially apolitical, its policy interests are often pretty standard conservative fare. Manufacturers would like to see lower taxes and lighter regulations. It’s that conservative orientation that makes Timmons’ comments on immigration so interesting, because they run counter to what a lot of conservative dogma on immigration has been, especially during the Donald Trump era.

We at Cardinal News invited Timmons to Danville as part of our ongoing speaker series, where we aim to bring nationally known figures to the region to speak on business-related topics. We’ve tailored those to specific communities. In Blacksburg, we had the congressman from the Silicon Valley – Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California – talk about technology. For Danville, a city that is rebranding itself as an advanced manufacturing hub, Timmons was a natural choice. We’re working on other speakers for other communities; stay tuned.

The official topic for Timmons’ talk was “the future of advanced manufacturing.”

Much of his talk dealt with an overview of the manufacturing sector.

He made the case that virtually all manufacturing today is already advanced manufacturing. “So much has changed over the past few decades; manufacturers have truly embraced digitalization and what we call Manufacturing 4.0,” he said. “Advanced manufacturing technologies aren’t the stuff of science fiction anymore – you can find 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, digital twins and so much more even in small and mid-sized manufacturing companies.”

He praised the infrastructure bill that passed last year and singled out Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, as one of the leaders who helped make it happen. “That law is going to make our lives better, plain and simple,” Timmons said, “and make it easier for manufacturers in America to compete with countries like China.”

He also praised the CHIPS and Science Act that was passed this summer, which Warner was also instrumental in. “This law is almost tailor-made to support and strengthen advanced U.S. manufacturing in the long term,” Timmons said. (Of note: Every Republican member of Congress from Virginia voted against the bill, including the congressman whose district Timmons was speaking in – Rep. Bob Good.) Timmons said the bill “was crucial for manufacturing communities” because so much manufacturing today relies on microchips; creating a bigger domestic supply chain is essential for both business and national security. Timmons also noted that the bill includes money to create regional technology hubs around the country and urged Danville to apply for that funding.

By contrast, Timmons faulted the recently passed climate bill. “Members of Congress branded it the ‘Inflation Reduction Act,’ but it was hard to see how this law combats inflation or positions us for global leadership,” Timmons said. One of his main complaints with the act: tax increases. For that same reason, he praised the Republican-sponsored tax bill that passed in 2017 because it cut taxes.

If you’re keeping partisan score, Timmons praised an infrastructure bill that passed with bipartisan support (although most Republicans voted against it), praised the microchip bill that passed with less (but still some) Republican support, then objected to the Inflation Reduction Act that passed with only Democratic support, and praised a Republican-sponsored tax bill. Plot all those on an ideological spectrum and you’ll get a good sense of where Timmons is coming from – somewhere right of center but not that far right.

All in all, Timmons said, the United States is on the verge of ushering in “a manufacturing decade – if only we make the right choices today.”

One of those choices, he said, is about how to deal with all those workforce vacancies. Creating a better skilled workforce will require more education, more training programs, more apprenticeships. But, he said, it will also require a new approach to immigration, especially with an estimated 11 or 12 million people already here without proper paperwork. “It’s time to provide an appropriate and balanced path to legalization,” Timmons said. “Besides being the right thing to do in a country that’s always been a nation of immigrants, it will bring in talent that meets our economic needs. If we don’t welcome more immigrants legally, two things will happen. That talent will go help other countries outcompete us, taking away sales from American companies, and … our population could shrink. It’s virtually impossible to have an aging, shrinking population and grow the economy in a way that improves people’s lives. Immigration is the solution.”

These are not words we’ve heard from someone with a Republican pedigree in a long time. They’re not that different, though, from what former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said at Bluefield University in 2014. He spoke then about an aging American population and the need to, as he put it then, “rebuild the demographic pyramid” by welcoming young, entrepreneurial immigrants. Had Bush prevailed over Trump in 2016, perhaps we might already have come to some national consensus on immigration. He did not, and we did not, so here we are. Timmons’ comments above came in his prepared remarks, but he returned to immigration again during a question-and-answer session with the audience, which was dominated by Danville-area business and political leaders. (The event was open to all, free of charge with registration required because seating was limited.)

“I know this is a third rail – immigration,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s happened. I really don’t. There was a bipartisan belief even 15 years ago” that immigration was good for the country. “We have to have strong borders – every country does.” But he suggested that those concerned about border security had lost sight of the economic – and human – realities. He spoke again of the millions of immigrants already here without paperwork. “Yes, I wish they had come here legally,” Timmons said. But they didn’t, and they’re here now, rooted in American society but forced to work in the shadows because they don’t have the proper paperwork. “In manufacturing, we’re not going to hire them unless they have status,” he said, which meant we have a dilemma that could be easily solved. We have jobs going unfilled, and people who could fill them already here – but are unable to take those jobs. “Think of the dent we could put in those open jobs across the economy, if we can find some way in a post-partisan way to fix the system,” Timmons said. The only thing stopping that, he said, is politics. “I want us to put that tension behind us.”

Timmons also framed the migrants coming from Latin America in a way I’ve heard few do: “If you walk literally 2,000 miles across open desert in summer with your child and one bag of belongings, you’re not doing that to take away somebody’s opportunity. You’re doing it to escape something. You’re doing it to be part of something more.” I’ve often wondered why it’s conservatives who have been the most upset about these migrants. After all, these people trying to get into the United States, albeit illegally, represent a validation of so many of the things conservatives stand for: hard work, opportunity, family. They seem a living testimonial to conservative values. It always seemed to me that conservatives ought to be welcoming these migrants just as much, if not more so, than those on the left. Yes, there ought to be some orderly way to deal with them – we can’t just have people walk across the border – but, overall, their desire to get into the United States is an affirmation of our way of life. These are people who are literally voting with their feet to become Americans, in practice if not necessarily in law. We sure don’t see migrants clamoring to get into China or Russia. Now we hear that the lack of immigration – at least legal immigration – is starting to undermine American competitiveness.

This is not the first time I have heard this, either. Jason El Koubi, who heads the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, told a meeting of local government officials in Roanoke recently that the labor shortage is going to lead to several things – one of them being increased pressure to deal with immigration. Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Adams of New York is saying essentially the same thing. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been busing asylum-seeking immigrants out of state, many to New York City. This week Adams announced he wanted to put those immigrants to work to help fill all the unfilled jobs in the city. “The strange thing is, particularly in New York and across the country, there’s such a demand for, [a] need of employees,” Adams said. “Many of my industries are dying to get employees.” Abbott thinks he’s punishing Democratic-voting cities by shipping asylum-seekers there; what if he’s actually helping them solve an economic problem that he, himself, has in Texas? “So if you are a nurse from Venezuela, why am I having you sit down and not be using your medical profession to help in the hospitals that we have a shortage of nurses,” the New York mayor said. “If you are an engineer, we have a shortage of engineers. If you are a teacher, we have a shortage of teachers, bilingual teachers.” The same principle surely applies to all those unfilled manufacturing jobs. Maybe localities with the biggest worker shortages should be clamoring for Texas to send one of its buses there?

I have to wonder when enough pressure will boil up enough to break the political logjam on immigration. I don’t know when but I have a pretty good idea of how it will happen. It won’t come from pressure on the left. It will come from pressure on the right, from business leaders who have done the math and reached the conclusion that there’s simply no other way those jobs are going to get filled. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.