As the U.S. Senate heatedly debates immigration reforms, a California study released Wednesday projects that the state would need to triple its number of college-educated immigrants to fill a looming shortage of engineers, health professionals and other highly skilled workers.
But the study by the Public Policy Institute of California concludes that the state is unlikely to attract the additional 160,000 college graduates it will need by 2025, either from foreign countries or other states. Limits on immigration, rising global competition for skilled workers and California's high housing prices will impede the state's ability to meet its future economic demand, according to the study's authors, Hans Johnson and Deborah Reed.
Instead, the researchers said the state should expand opportunities for more Californians to complete college, particularly Latinos and blacks, who have lower college-bound rates than other ethnic groups.
"It is extremely unlikely that the projected need for highly skilled workers will be met mainly through migration, foreign or domestic," Johnson said during a national teleconference Wednesday. "Perhaps the best policy to concentrate on is improving educational attainment among California's own residents, preparing them for the state's future."
That conclusion was hailed by education advocates, including the Campaign for College Opportunity based in Oakland.
"We have plenty of smart young people right here in California to meet our workforce needs, but we have to provide them a better shot at college," said Abdi Soltani, executive director for the organization, which was co-founded by business, Latino and education groups to expand college opportunities for Californians.
Some immigration control groups also welcomed the report, saying it was far better to develop needed home-grown workers than import immigrants and risk driving down wages and working conditions for Americans. Access to easy immigrant labor, they argue, reduces the incentive for business groups to lobby for educational improvements.
"The idea that we can't produce our own skilled labor is absurd," said Mark Krikorian of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which this week released a report concluding that foreign workers were paid less than Americans of comparable skills and education. "We have a vast, mobile and highly flexible labor force of 150 million people."
The study comes as the U.S. Senate is debating the largest proposed changes to the immigration system in four decades. Reflecting concerns of looming high-skilled labor shortages, the bill by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) would shift the way the nation chooses its immigrants from a heavy preference for those with family connections to those offering advanced skills, college degrees and the ability to speak English fluently.
But Johnson said that even if the bill were passed, it would probably not make enough of a difference to help the state attract all of the highly skilled workers it needs.
In their analysis, the researchers projected that by 2025, the state's total number of available jobs would increase by 4.5 million, more than three-fourths of them requiring college degrees. The most important growth industry will be education and health services, the researchers said, followed by such professional sectors as legal, engineering and computer services.
But the state's population is unlikely to fill that need without migration, the researchers found. One reason is that the state's most educated group, older white adults, will be increasingly replaced in the labor force by Latinos, who have lower education levels. In Los Angeles County, for instance, the 2005 high school graduation rate for Latinos was 51.7%, compared with 55% for African Americans, 75.3% for whites and 92.2% for Asian Americans, according to a United Way study this year.
Johnson and Reed were dubious that migration, either foreign or domestic, could close the skills gap. From 2000 to 2005, California lost more college graduates to other states than it gained, reversing a long trend of attracting them. The researchers said that the state's high housing prices were a prime cause.
The state has continued to attract foreign college graduates, nearly doubling the annual net total to 56,000 since the late 1980s, primarily from India, the Philippines and China. But the researchers said that would not be enough to fill the state's needs, particularly because competition for these college graduates has increased from other states and countries.
The outlook could change, the researchers said, if housing prices fall and wages rise, making California more attractive. Even now, Johnson noted, California still tops national polls on the most desirable place to move.
"The California dream ... still holds nationwide," he said.
To burnish that luster, Johnson said state investment and expansion in college opportunities would help.