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.

Summer Jobs and the National Interest

By Michael McCarry 

Op-Ed | @CENETJ1 #ExchangesImpact

Two recent articles – one in Time magazine and the other on National Public Radio – demonstrate that American students are losing interest in 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.  So this is a trend, not an aberration.

Time argues that the decline is mostly about American students’ aspirations for higher education.  As college admission in the U.S. grows more and more competitive, American students increasingly spend their summers on academic enrichment or resume-building activities like internships, organized sports, and volunteering.  Time reports that resort operators have filled the gap with older American workers and international university students, who come to the U.S. through the Department of State’s Summer Work Travel (SWT) program.

NPR agrees that declining interest in summer jobs has to do with college, but arrives at its conclusion via a different path.  The piece makes a persuasive economic case that 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.

The appearance of these articles is timely.  The White House and several federal agencies are working on plans to implement an Executive Order entitled, “Buy American, Hire American.”  A sharp reduction in the Summer Work Travel program is apparently under discussion.

This would be a very serious mistake.

First, as the BLS data show, international students who come to the U.S. on SWT are not displacing Americans.  Instead, they are filling a gap that the tourism sector of our economy desperately needs filled.  Time quotes Tommy Diehl, president of a major attraction in the Wisconsin Dells:  “If anyone says these people are taking jobs away from Americans, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Just as important, SWT is the State Department’s largest exchange program, and its only program that reaches undergraduates in significant numbers.  And because the program is funded through student fees, all these positive people-to-people connections happen at no cost to the US taxpayer.

Students come from all over the world – Ireland, Russia, Ukraine, China, Turkey, and Brazil are among the largest sending countries – and enjoy the powerful cultural exchange experience of learning to live and work in a new country.  Students cover their program and living costs through their earnings.  Surveys show that over 90 per cent of these students are motivated to visit the U.S. by their desire for cultural exchange, not because they want to work. Ninety per cent have a positive experience, make American friends, and improve their English.  And a remarkable 98 per cent recommended the program to friends, a clear sign of a successful exchange program.

Here’s where we are, in policy terms:

We have a popular, successful Summer Work Travel program that builds good will for the U.S around the world at no cost to the American taxpayer, directly connects us with students who are future leaders in their home countries, and supports our tourism sector by filling a critical seasonal gap.

And yet, policymakers are considering sharply reducing the size of the program, or perhaps even eliminating it, despite much diminished demand from Americans for such jobs.

Someone asked me recently if this circumstance really poses a serious threat to the program.  After all, she continued, SWT has faced regulatory challenges in recent years and always has emerged stronger.

My answer:  on a scale of existential threat with 10 being the most threatening, we are now facing a 10.  What’s going on in Washington is not a discussion about the best way to run the program, but whether we should have the program at all.

All American stakeholders in this program – host communities, employers, and sponsors – should make their voices heard by their Members of Congress and the White House.  Summer Work Travel is a national diplomatic asset – low cost, high value, long-term payoff – that we need to preserve.

Michael McCarry

Michael McCarry is a Senior Advisor at CENET. With over 37 years of international experience– both as a Foreign Service Officer and the Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange– Michael McCarry is a leader within the exchange community, with distinct insight and knowledge in policy, foreign affairs, and public diplomacy. 

The Summer Work Travel program is good for Americans and great for America. This cultural exchange program that supports strong economies and & U.S. national security interests is under attack. For more information and ways to get involved in protecting this valuable public diplomacy program, please visit Americans for Cultural Exchange or contact CENET.  

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.