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Are asylum-seekers an answer to workforce woes?

Driving through the industrial sections of the El Paso-Ju├írez-southern New Mexico region, one can see countless banners on production plants and distribution centers reading “Now Hiring” or “Help Wanted.”

As the economy gains strength, demand for automobiles, housing, consumer products and processed foods is starting to rise. However, as is the case in other sectors, a vicious cycle is occurring. Firms are struggling to expand operations because they cannot find the workers to help them do so. Talking to plant managers, I keep hearing the same two reasons why workers are unwilling to go back into the workforce.

This artwork by Michael Osbun refers to the need to create better paying jobs.

First is the fact that many workers are receiving unemployment benefits that approximate or exceed the salary they were receiving before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. On top of these benefits are stimulus checks that many of the unemployed also have received. Second is the fear that many potential employees have of working in a big production plant with hundreds of workers as the pandemic persists.

While the federal government and states are reviewing the scaling-back of unemployment benefits, and reinstating proof that an unemployed person is actively interviewing for a job, the fear of being around people in numbers and falling ill could persist for the foreseeable future.

The scarcity of employees could lead to firms competing for existing employees, thus causing disruptions in production and exacerbating the expansion process. It could also lead to companies paying more than their competition in order to retain or recruit workers from other plants. Firms could also make their positions more attractive by increasing benefits. All of these come at a cost that will eventually result in higher prices that are passed on to the end consumer.

How ironic is it that companies are trying desperately to find workers and we have a wave of immigrants trying to come to the U.S. to work, only to be held in detention facilities or released to the custody of relatives?

Other than specific sectors such as agriculture, the U.S. visa system generally requires that visa seekers have some kind of technical skill, business experience, or in-demand skill. Many of these immigrants from places such as Honduras, Guatemala and Cuba do not have these skills and experience, and therefore will not qualify for a work visa under the current requirements. Furthermore, visas of this type are extremely limited, and Washington, D.C., has not been able to address the visa system.

Aside from the pandemic, the population of the U.S. is rapidly aging and putting pressure on the Social Security and health care systems. We also are in a trend where the growth of the overall U.S. population is slowing down. People are having fewer children and immigration to the U.S. remains stagnant. In order for our economy to grow, where are the workers going to come from?

Could asylum seekers be part of the solution? If they have the will to work, and they don’t have a criminal record or other issues, could a temporary visa be issued so that they can be hired and trained for specific positions?

Residency for these workers could be made contingent on the immigrant working successfully and leading a clean life for five to 10 years.If they do not have the propensity to work, or get into trouble with the law, their visa could be revoked, and they could be returned to their country of origin.

I know that many Americans will vehemently claim that these immigrants will be taking away jobs from Americans. If this were the case, why were value-added firms having issues finding good, reliable workers even before the pandemic?

Also, wouldn’t unemployed Americans be flocking to take production jobs that are currently available?I know many plant managers who would be willing to train eager employees hungry for a job.

Does race/ethnicity factor into offering temporary work visas to immigrants from places such as Central America? Would it make a difference if the asylum seekers were coming from places such as Eastern Europe? With the racial tension that currently exists in our country, this is a fair question.

Ultimately, solving the problem of scarce workers lies in several areas. The first is increased automation, which would allow production with fewer workers. The problem is that this can cost a lot of money, and a lot of functions cannot easily be automated. Second, federal and state governments could offer tax breaks for people to have more children, which is probably unrealistic. Third, we could try to recruit more people out of retirement and put them back into the workforce, either through incentives or tax breaks. Fourth, the U.S. can fix its broken visa system and allow increased numbers of immigrants to work in the U.S. on a temporary visa with a possible long-term path to citizenship.

Finally, we can do nothing and accept the fact that our economic growth will continue to decline in the future, and learn to live and produce within our means. This last option is not an attractive one. However, unless we look at all options in increasing our workforce, it is a definite possibility.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at jerry@nmiba.com.

 



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