April 22, 2024

We Need Immigrants For Rural America’s Future

Find this content useful? Share it with your friends!

Unemployment in Minnesota remains at record lows. Manufacturers and main street businesses struggle to fill positions essential to meeting production schedules, expanding their businesses, and meeting customer needs.

Without a significant downturn in the economy resulting in widespread layoffs, there is no immediate relief for employers seeking to fill open positions. Increased unemployment due to a weakening economy is not an economic development strategy anyone seeks.

Why do we have such a persistently tight labor market? Our economy, despite those saying it is terrible hoping to boost their political campaigns, is humming along in America and Minnesota. Increased wages give people more money to spend, and they are doing just that.

There is another core element to our tight labor market – workers from the Baby Boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, are retiring in greater numbers than new people coming into the workforce. This is especially true in many rural counties.

In our rural counties, we also see deaths exceeding the number of births. When you combine this fact with the number of our high school graduates who leave for metropolitan areas, we constantly struggle to find employees to fill positions throughout our rural economy – in healthcare, government, education, manufacturing, and on main street.

Where will the workers come from to maintain our rural economies and sustain our communities? While some will be local or high school graduates who return home, many will have to be immigrants. 

We already see them playing an essential role in the growth of our communities with the new businesses they are starting and their increasing numbers among our local workforce. We see their growing importance in schools, churches, and healthcare fields.

Research from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) shows how important immigrants have been in recent years and how important they are to our future.

“New Americans play a vital role in meeting Minnesota’s workforce needs. In fact, from 2010-2020, foreign-born workers made up more than 50% of the state’s labor force growth,” DEED Assistant Commissioner for Immigrant and Refugee Affairs Abdiwahab Mohamed. “Welcoming more immigrants and refugees – and doing more to bring our New American neighbors who are already in Minnesota into our labor force — will help ease our severe labor force shortage.” 

Some say our labor shortage is due to too many people sitting out and collecting unemployment. If that is a problem, it’s not one attributed to immigrants who come here looking for a better life. “Research has shown that foreign-born residents participate in the labor force at a rate 3.8% higher than U.S.-born residents,” DEED says. 

While 3.8% may seem like a small number, it is significant. It means thousands more workers willing to fill job openings.

“Bringing immigration back up to 2015 levels now through 2030 would erase over 25% of the ongoing labor force shortage projected over the next eight years,” DEED says.

How do you attract people to our communities to keep them alive and vibrant? You can provide better schools, access to entertainment and recreation, provide workforce housing, and daycare services and still face hurdles to bringing in the workers who will fill the jobs you already have vacant.

When economic development strategy is discussed by small towns in Minnesota, conversations focus on bringing in new families and workers. They recognize they also must be providing new housing and daycare services if their efforts are going to be successful.

These days, a few at the table from the community get nervous when these discussions occur. While the city and county representatives at the table are excited about the prospects of attracting a new business, existing manufacturers aren’t so much. In an extremely tight labor market, they see any new job creation as a threat. It means even greater competition for limited employees and missed production goals. Expansion plans for businesses we already have are frustrated by labor shortages as it is.

As the baby boom generation retires in more significant numbers, rural Minnesota will face an even more desperate labor shortage. If we want to keep our current manufacturers, it is imperative that we welcome a new labor force to the area.

For decades, communities have focused their economic development efforts on creating business-friendly strategies such as providing commercial buildings, lower taxes, and development subsidies. While important, they are not what meets the needs of employers or our communities today. 

Our efforts must focus on what makes a community welcoming and attractive to families. Immigrants will be essential to community growth. A community without an economic growth strategy that doesn’t include ways in which it can integrate immigrants into its fabric is at a significant disadvantage.

“Immigration has become one of the nation’s most contentious political issues,” William H. Frey writes in a story for the Brookings Institution. “Yet there has been less public attention paid to broader immigration policy than to sensational characterizations of open borders, illegal immigrants, and negative stereotypes about immigrants’ country of origin, race, or ethnicity.”

What we aren’t paying attention to is U.S. Census data showing America’s population will begin declining for the first time in its history in the future.

Thousands of communities across America are struggling to promote themselves to businesses. How are they doing at showing they are welcoming to immigrants? Rural America has been getting a bad reputation as anti-immigrant, we have to work to change that impression.

Our population loss and tight labor market has far-reaching impacts beyond economic development efforts to fill job openings and attract new families to the community. It means we can’t sustain our local fire departments or fill the openings for EMTs in our rural rescue and ambulance crews. It means there aren’t enough school bus drivers to fill out the needed routes, and children spend hours riding to and from school.

Economic development today has to include efforts to recruit and welcome immigrants. 

Find this content useful? Share it with your friends!