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Immigration as Mechanism for Growth in the Automotive Industry

August 22, 2016

Detroit, Michigan is often described as the heart of the automotive industry. With this title comes the inevitable responsibility of continuing to boost the industry’s growth. Often, this growth includes hiring an increasing number of individuals from a variety of backgrounds and a wide array of skills. Notably, waves of immigrants have been drawn to the heart of the automotive industry, seeking opportunities to earn higher wages and to utilize their unique skills. The automotive industry presented itself as a stable career choice to these individuals – individuals that were often fleeing their home countries because of conflict, political oppression, or to seek a better economic opportunity.

Detroit earned a second title in the process: a melting pot. This title was earned through the idea that metro Detroit was built by immigrants. These immigrants aided in the growth of multiple industries, including the service industry, medical industry, computer technology industry, and, of course, the automotive industry. However, the utility and exceptional skills of these foreign born-workers were not always recognized. Often, industries sought to hire within. This is especially true on a domestic level.

At the beginning of the rise of the automotive industry in Detroit, workers from rural areas of the Midwest flooded the city in response to the need for automotive workers. These workers were drawn to Detroit after being displaced by the logging industry and small farming failures. However, by 1910, Canadian autoworkers were the leading source of immigration to Detroit. It was after this boom of immigration that auto manufacturers began recruiting workers from international industrial cities such as England and Scotland. Ford, especially, encouraged the influx of immigrant workers by raising daily wages and recruiting in networks as far as the Middle East. This gave Ford, as well as many other large auto manufacturers in the Detroit area, the opportunity to become more innovative, to take more risks, and to utilize the unique skillset of individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds.

In pursuing opportunities for hiring foreign workers, the following programs are available:

  • H-1B Visa: The purpose of the H-1B is to allow employers to hire foreign nationals qualified to perform “specialty occupations.” These occupations include engineering, finance, and other technical or scientific positions.
  • L Visa: The purpose of the L visa is to facilitate the temporary transfer of key personnel for multinational companies with management experience and specialized skills. This includes both managers and executives as well as individuals with specialized knowledge in a particular field. Managers are those individuals that supervise and control the work of other supervisory, professional, or managerial employees or manage an essential function within the organization. Executives direct the management of the organization or a major component or function of the organization and establish organizational policies and goals. Individuals with specialized knowledge have specific knowledge about the products or services of an organization and its application to international markets. Specialized knowledge workers are heavily scrutinized by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
  • TN Visa: The purpose of the TN visa is to allow employers to hire Canadian and/or Mexican professionals in specific categories. These categories include: computer system analysts, engineers, accountants, management consultants, scientific technologists, and others. 
  • J Visa: The purpose of the J visa is to allow employers to hire temporary trainees. These trainees include students that are given a 12 month internship in designated occupational areas (engineering, science, business) or professionals that are given an 18 month training program to build on previous education or experience in designated occupational areas. 

Given the availability of many avenues for employers to hire foreign workers, the automotive industry could benefit from an influx of specially skilled foreign workers. With its recognition as a city built by immigrants, Detroit continues to be a premier location for individuals with automotive skills to plant roots and to better the industry.

This article was co-written by Yvonne Kupfermann while Yvonne was a summer associate at Varnum in 2016. 

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