Dr. Ty Handy has been an educator for more than 16 years, during which time he’s worked with many immigrants and international students. As current president of Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, located in Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District, he oversees an annual operating budget of almost $50 million. The college enrolled roughly 12,000 students at the start of the fall 2016 semester—more than any of the other two-year, open-enrollment colleges within the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. And yet he still can’t graduate enough students to fill all of the available job openings in the greater Louisville region. “The unemployment rate here in Louisville is practically nil,” Handy says. “So our high-tech management and logistics firms—Ford, General Electric, UPS, Amazon—are all scrambling to find employees, just gobbling them up as quick as we can turn them out.”
Our high-tech management and logistics firms—Ford, General Electric, UPS, Amazon—are all scrambling to find employees, just gobbling them up as quick as we can turn them out.
This is where Handy sees an opportunity for immigration reform. “Right now we have two issues: We don’t have a large enough qualified native population to be able to generate the pipeline of students that our workforce needs and the immigrant population who could help fill those positions is often discouraged with our current immigration strategy. We have to look, not just nationally, but internationally in order to attract the talent and scope of skills that are needed.”
Handy says he’s not the only one in his district who feels that way. “Louisville prides itself on being an inclusive and compassionate community,” he says. “We’re open to recruiting talent from wherever it exists.” One such person is on the college’s board. “He owns a manufacturing company that employs 400 people locally, but all of his growth and development is happening over in Europe because he can’t meet his workforce needs here in the United States,” Handy explains. He says it’s those mid-level, skilled positions that require a technical background and come with an annual salary in excess of $40,000 that are going unfilled. “In the advanced manufacturing industry area alone, I believe we have over 1,000 technician openings and even more in the IT field.”
Louisville’s immigrants are prime candidates to fill those positions. As in most U.S. cities, Louisville’s foreign-born residents are more likely to be of working age—defined as being between the ages of 25 and 64—than its U.S.-born population. Additionally, Handy calls Jefferson’s immigrant students “some of our best.” So much so, that the college just introduced several new ESL classes and is in the process of establishing a new multicultural center to provide those students with further support. “Our immigrant students know what skills they need, whether it’s language or workforce, and they persist toward their education more effectively because they’ve got their eyes on the prize,” he says.
Outside of the academic setting, Louisville’s immigrant population also benefits the city in other ways. For one thing, foreign-born families play a key role in the area’s overall population growth despite accounting for just 5 percent of current residents. “I can’t help but wonder what our country could achieve if our immigration processes weren’t so bureaucratic that we discouraged otherwise highly skilled people from coming or staying in the United States,” Handy says. He, like many of Louisville’s other residents and business owners, is ready to find out.