Depending on what you read and who you listen to, your opinion of our nation’s workforce’s most pressing problem probably focuses on either worker shortages or immigration. Could these two issues (which on the surface look like comparing apples and oranges) go together like peas and carrots?
A shortage of high school agricultural instructors made headlines this fall. Yet nationally there’s an impending lack of most types of educators. In agriculture, large animal veterinarians, agronomists and most jobs that service farmers also are in short supply. These talent shortages are a troubling trend for education and farming’s futures, but hardly unique.
Pick an industry: nurses and doctors, accounting and finance, carpenters, engineers and manufacturing, or those who fix computers or cars. There’s hardly a skilled trade that doesn’t face shortages. Just in manufacturing it’s forecasted that more than 2 million jobs will go unfilled during the next decade.
I could give our aspiring presidents a pass for not prioritizing on the workforce skills gap. After all, last summer disaster seemed to lurk around every corner, from ISIS in the Middle East to a jittery Wall Street to violent unrest from Baltimore to Ferguson to Milwaukee. Yet a different labor issue (immigration) caught fire.
Despite the over-the-top rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail, several trips to Washington, D.C., tell me that immigration reform is a hot potato that few politicians will touch.
“They’ve got to go” statements about the 11 million or more illegal immigrants in our country are bumper sticker politics if ever there was such a thing. Aside from the huge price tag for sending undocumented workers home, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimated this would deepen agriculture’s chronic labor shortages resulting in losses of up to $9 billion for farmers. AFBF’s estimate came during 2012’s presidential campaign (ironically the last time the send-them-home solution was being discussed).
I know this issue deeply divides farmers. For every farmer without hired labor who thinks everyone should farm as they do, there’s another who has hired immigrants and worries that granting legal status to these workers would bring them out of the rural shadows of society and send them off to town to look for other jobs. Both farmers and consumers ought to recognize this type of labor for what it is: a critical component in America’s affordable food system.
Some people may make the argument that expanding legal immigration is not a viable solution to cure agriculture’s labor shortages. I agree that today’s illegal immigrant probably won’t be tomorrow’s agriculture instructor or veterinarian. But consider this: we live in a nation where Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, where the numbers of those receiving disability payments has ballooned and where the millions who’ve quit looking for work don’t even show up in the unemployment rate anymore. In contrast, immigrant laborers often share the values that rural Americans do: hard work and commitment to family.
Is anyone clamoring for the jobs in farming and the food sector that these people do? Who is going to pick the fruits and vegetables or slaughter the livestock? Most dairy farmers I know struggle to find and keep help. Nearly every fast food restaurant I drive past seems to be hiring.
Our nation risks its own fate by not grappling with the complex issues of labor shortages and immigration reform.
I have hope that the solutions to both are intertwined. Those who think the two issues are independent of one another and can be fixed with slogans are ignoring the two-headed monster at our doorstep.
Jim Holte was elected president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation in 2012. He was elected to the WFBF Board of Directors in 1995. He represents District 9 which consists of the Barron, Chippewa, Dunn, Pierce, Polk, Rusk, Sawyer and St. Croix county Farm Bureaus as well as the Superior Shores County Farm Bureau (made up of Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas and Iron counties). Jim was elected to the American Farm Bureau Federation Board of Directors in January of 2015 as a representative of the Midwest region. Jim and grows corn soybeans and alfalfa on 460 acres of land south of Elk Mound. He also raises beef steers. He and his wife, Gayle, have two children and four grandchildren.