Note to Washington: Exchanges Work. Leave Them Alone.

Op-Ed | #CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

On Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the White House is considering eliminating or severely reducing 5 State Department exchange programs:  Summer Work Travel, Intern, Trainee, Camp Counselor, and Au Pair.

This misguided idea emerged in a White House working group charged with implementing the President’s ‘Buy American, Hire American’ executive order.  While the notion may suggest superficial sense – if internationals aren’t doing these jobs, then Americans could – this move in fact would have virtually no impact on U.S. employment.

And you don’t have to dig very deep to understand the harm it would do:  damage or destroy exchange programs that provide powerful support to our national security, and stifle U.S. economies in resort areas with insufficient supplies of seasonal workers. This move also would do irreparable harm to the large constellation of mission-driven, private American organizations that – with decades-long encouragement and cooperation from the U.S. government – implement exchange programs.  Some of these organizations would be forced to close their doors, others would continue in much reduced form.

Thousands of Americans who work for these organizations would lose good, public-spirited jobs, jobs that make America a better and safer place.

That’s a lot of damage for a move that brings us nothing in return.

As I noted in a recent blog post, young Americans are increasingly less interested in traditional summer jobs.  Time cites data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicating that only 35 per cent of American teenagers actually look for summer jobs, and notes (again BLS stats) that the number of young Americans seeking summer jobs has declined 15 per cent over the past 15 years.

The BLS data strongly suggest that international students who come to the U.S. are not displacing Americans.  Instead, they are filling a staffing gap that the tourism and camp sectors of our economy desperately need filled, and can’t fill with local hires.  Recent survey data show that ninety-seven per cent of such employers can’t find enough seasonal employees locally, 39 per cent would have to reduce their operations, and 25 per cent couldn’t stay open during the summer.  Time quotes a resort operator from the Wisconsin Dells:  “If anyone says these people are taking jobs away from Americans, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

And of course, If businesses reduced their hours of operation or closed altogether, there would be a significant adverse impact on their American staff.

NPR makes a persuasive economic case that relatively low wages from a summer resort job no longer make a dent in sharply rising college costs.  Students thus invest their time in activities they perceive to have a higher return, i.e., enhancing their resumes, even if the return isn’t monetary.

We’ve known since at least 2005 that the impact of these programs on the U.S. labor market is virtually non-existent.  That year, the GAO published a study on this very question.  GAO summarized its findings in a single sentence:  “(Department of) Labor officials stated that it is not likely that the exchange programs will have any effect on the U.S. labor market because of the small number of J-1 exchange visitors (about 283,000 in fiscal year 2004) relative to the U.S. workforce.”

When I met in 2005 with the GAO team and asked about their findings on labor impact, their response conveyed the same meaning, but with a bit more color:  ‘The Bureau of Labor Statistics laughed us out of the room.  They said such a small number (of students) was not worth studying”.

This White House proposal would not enhance American employment, but it would eliminate important programs that that build good relationships with other nations.  Think of it:  every year, thousands of university students from around the world come to the United States, most for a year or less, at virtually no cost to the American taxpayer.  They make American friends, improve their English, and gain a better understanding of our culture and values.  All surveys show that the overwhelming majority has a great time. They go home and share their impressions with others.  This is an extremely effective way to build good will, mutual understanding, and respect.

In the years after the Berlin Wall came down and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, large numbers of Central European university students seized this opportunity to visit the U.S. for the first time.  For most of that period, Poland was the leading sending country for Summer Work Travel, and our embassy in Warsaw summarized the impact of the program in a 2003 cable:

“Sending such a large contingent of university students to the U.S. annually builds a reservoir of good will that will support a strong bilateral relationship for decades as these young Poles move into leadership positions throughout society. Moreover, by helping them sharpen their English skills, the program will help facilitate their success in a very competitive Polish job market.”

In other words, our exchange programs help us make friends of future leaders, and help those leaders succeed when they return home – an awfully good long-term investment, especially when it costs the U.S. almost nothing.

Interestingly, the student flows to the U.S. for the Summer Work Travel program have aligned fairly closely with global trends. Central European numbers declined as those nations connected with the European Union, and were replaced by strong flows from Russia and Ukraine as former Soviet republics began to find their feet as independent nations.  In recent years, we’ve seen strong interest from emerging economies:  China, Brazil, Turkey, and Thailand.

Adopting the White House proposal will not create jobs for Americans. Adopting it would, however, weaken U.S. diplomacy, damage the economies of American towns and regions that depend on tourism, and wreck a substantial segment of our very vibrant non-governmental exchange community.  American jobs will be lost.  American businesses and nonprofits will be shuttered.

Is that a good deal for America?

*This post was updated on August 30.


Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry, senior adviser to CENET, served for 21 years as Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange.  Before joining the Alliance, he was a U.S. diplomat with assignments in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Beijing, and Washington, including a tour as Staff Director for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  His international involvement began with a year as a graduate student at Melbourne University. 

Proposed changes to privately funded exchange programs would hurt many American communities, especially those that rely on seasonal business. We are working defend cultural exchange programs against impending restrictions. You can help, too. Please take a minute to inform your senators and representative about the impact of BAHA restrictions on exchange programs. You can do that by sending a letter asking them to contact the White House and urge that J-1 international exchange programs NOT be included in the BAHA implementation. Privately funded exchanges serve as a vital element of our national’s diplomacy. They support our national security and strengthen local economies across the U.S. Let us work together to ensure Congress helps preserve these programs!

CENET strives to inspire a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration.For more news and updates about CENET, please visit our Facebook Page.

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