American manufacturing is extremely competitive — but the country’s immigration policies are making it harder for U.S. firms to compete in the global marketplace, says Barry MacLean, chairman and CEO of MacLean-Fogg. MacLean should know, his Mundelein-based manufacturing company operates 30 manufacturing facilities across the United States, employs 4,500 people worldwide, and racks up sales of around $800 million. “We export millions of American-made components a year, and we can do that because we’re really good at it and we’ve automated the hell out of it,” he says.
But automation doesn’t mean fewer jobs. In fact, MacLean attributes his company’s success to its many skilled workers—including talented immigrant engineers. Not that immigration policy has made hiring these workers easy. “With the way things are, you can’t bring people here, and you can’t move people around,” he says. “How can you be a global manufacturing company when you can’t ask an engineer from China or Brazil to come and work here?”
Only about half of the foreign engineers that MacLean-Fogg tries to hire ultimately get the visas they need to join the company’s U.S. operations, MacLean says. “There’s a real barrier to getting the right people,” he says. “We’ve had a number of our engineers who’ve had to go back to Brazil or to Asia, and we’ve lost the benefit of their industriousness and their skills.”
How can you be a global manufacturing company when you can’t ask an engineer from China or Brazil to come and work here?
It’s especially problematic, MacLean says, when talented candidates straight out of top STEM graduate programs are forced to return to their home countries rather than take jobs with American companies. “Anybody with a degree from a U.S. university, and certainly anyone with a graduate degree, should be able to stay here with a green card, period,” he says. “If you tell those people they can’t come, or can’t stay, then we lose that talent. They go home and give their skills to our competitors. It ultimately injures the U.S. manufacturing base.”
MacLean, who is also a renowned collector of antique maps, notes that among his collection are numerous maps of America published in German, Swedish, and other European languages. These were sold to immigrants upon their arrival at Ellis Island to help them find their way around. Back then, Americans saw immigration as an opportunity, not a threat. MacLean says that’s the kind of mindset that’s needed today. “It’s not just a business issue for me — it’s a philosophical issue,” he says. “Our country is founded on immigrants coming here in search of opportunity. It’s simply the right thing to do.”
MacLean knows that an open-door immigration policy isn’t likely to be introduced anytime soon, but he wants the country to have a real conversation on the issue. Canada has a far more open immigration system, especially for skilled workers, and its economy is thriving, he points out. “You don’t want to take 10 million immigrants a year, I get that,” he says. “But our immigration laws are currently skewed against people coming here.”