Trump’s NAFTA Stance Could Cut Access To High-Skill Labor

NAFTA provides a way for highly-skilled workers from neighboring countries to come to the U.S.

By Paul FlahiveJanuary 2, 2017 9:30 am, , , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t like NAFTA. “If they don’t agree to a renegotiation, and they might not, then I will submit that America intends to withdraw from the deal,” he said at a campaign stop.

NAFTA creates more than a half billion dollars in trade each year among Canada, Mexico and the United States. And it provides a way for highly-skilled workers from neighboring countries to come and work in the U.S.

It’s called the TN visa, and according to the State Department, the number of people using it quadrupled over the past five years. Last year, 20,000 workers and their dependents legally entered the U.S. with a TN visa.

Many of those workers went to tech jobs.

“If they can’t find a match in the labor market, then that is going to erode their ability to be innovative.”

Rachel Wellhausen is an assistant professor of international political economy at the University of Texas at Austin. She says educating the U.S. population is part of the solution, but tech companies obviously need foreign workers to meet staffing demands.

“If the way the United States is pushing the technology frontier forward is through startups and entrepreneurship and innovation, that should be a crucial component.”

San Antonio has often struggled to keep pace with the corporate need for an educated workforce. The TN is a popular tool for doing that.

In downtown San Antonio, Luis Montealegre leads an advanced class for Codeup, an intensive web and software development course. Montelealegre has a TN visa and he’s not the only foreign talent working to develop San Antonio’s workforce.

“For instance, on this floor, we are three,” he says, “and we have another instructor coming from Mexico.”

He’s not sure what the future holds for his TN visa or for NAFTA, but says he can’t see incoming President Trump walking away from such a useful program.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s something I wasn’t expecting, and I don’t know how it is going to look next year,” Montealegre says.

That uncertainty is already making things hard for companies that depend on south-of-the-border talent to fill IT jobs.

“There’s a huge tech shortage happening. Just in the last quarter of 2016 there were nearly a million job openings that remained unoccupied, so  this is huge,” says Tito Salas. He runs a company called CodersLink that connects Mexican talent with corporate America.

“Mexico is one of the top IT service providers in the world. It has a pool of more than 500,000 IT professionals.”

In the year since he started the company, Salas has placed more than one coder per month in the U.S. But the Trump factor has not helped him sell Mexican talent on moving to Texas.

“Some of them don’t care, but a couple of them were very interested and were being interviewed by companies and they just dropped the application,” Salas says.

Salas hopes the TN program will continue but he also has a backup plan – Canada. If the U.S. leaves NAFTA, Canada and Mexico remain. Salas says the country has made several moves to make it easier for tech talent to work there recently, and that by 2019 they will have 185,000 IT job openings.

“Right now we are expanding our network there and talking to companies, and I think there has been really good reception.”

Mexico City developer Gus Sotelo worked on his TN visa for six months. He received offers to work in Austin and San Antonio, then the election happened.

“There were a lot of racist comments and publications in social networks about Mexicans, and we felt that that wasn’t the right move to go to Texas.”

So Sotelo and his wife decided to drop out of the visa process. For Sotelo, it’s not about NAFTA, but about what Trump represents.

He was disappointed because coming to the U.S. was a longtime dream.

“Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, all those companies are the best. I think if you want to be the best in your job, you have to learn from the best.”

Tech companies and foreign skilled workers are watching to see if Trump will back up his threats with action that dismantles the TN visa program, and harms the technology sector it’s helping to build.