Here’s an inconsistency that continuously puzzles me. Right here in northeastern Minnesota, as well as around the country, we have critical workforce shortages that are clearly impacting the health of our economy. And yet anti-immigrant views still resonate with many in the region.
Just take a look around. Right now, about the only businesses that don’t have “Help Wanted” signs in their windows are the ones that have given up on trying to find workers.
KBJR recently reported that Delta Airlines has 200 unfilled positions in their Chisholm reservations center. Name just about any sector of the area economy, and finding qualified employees is at the top of their list of concerns. I was out to eat in Tower the other night and the restaurant couldn’t offer its regular menu because it can’t find a cook.
Sure, the economy is doing well right now, but it could be doing much better. Every potential job that goes wanting for a qualified applicant is another individual’s wage that won’t be spent in the local economy. Those 200 unfilled positions at Delta alone are costing the Iron Range economy millions of dollars in lost wages. That’s potential wealth and growth that we won’t generate because we don’t have qualified people to fill the jobs.
While workforce shortages are an issue around the country, they are especially acute here in northeastern Minnesota, where baby boomers are over-represented in the population. As more boomers slide into retirement, our region’s available workforce shrinks, and that puts stress on area businesses and means our economy is failing to reach its full potential.
At the same time, the birth rate in the United States hit a record low last year, as parents weigh the high cost of childcare, college tuition, and an increasingly dire outlook for the future of the world given threats like climate change.
Despite such realities, we still hear candidates running right here in northeastern Minnesota talking about building walls, and further limiting the number of new immigrants and refugees allowed into the country. From an economic standpoint, such policies are madness. They weaken our economy today because we desperately need workers, and they will undermine our nation’s ability to finance the promises we’ve collectively made to seniors and future seniors down the road.
Not long ago, there was bipartisan agreement on the value of immigration. No longer.
Republican icons like Ronald Reagan would be tossed from the GOP today for favoring amnesty for those who entered the country illegally and for supporting more liberal immigration policies. While some of those voices remain in the Republican Party today, particularly among business groups aligned with the party who recognize the value of immigration, they have been largely silenced with the rise of Donald Trump and the racially-motivated, anti-immigrant fervor that he has generated within the GOP base.
It’s unfortunate because it’s so wrongheaded. Sadly, media like Fox News, and politicians like Trump, feed a false narrative of the dangers and the high costs to society posed by immigrants. It’s utter nonsense. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of immigrants come to the U.S. for educational and economic opportunity. Far from costing society, every objective study that’s ever been done points to exactly the opposite. Immigrants contribute mightily to society, through the taxes they pay on their earnings, their purchases, and their property. Immigrants increase the economic demand for new housing and for the full gamut of goods and services in the economy.
In our region, we often hear complaints that school enrollments are suffering. At the same time, we have many local businesses that are getting by, but that could truly thrive with a ten-percent increase in their clientele. Our region’s population is stagnant or declining, so prospects for either population or economic growth are limited. And by the way, new mines are unlikely to change that. We have mining jobs right now, not to mention many other very good-paying, middle class jobs going wanting for qualified applicants here in northeastern Minnesota. What we need are people willing and able to fill them. Right now, people aren’t moving here even though plenty of jobs are available.
What the U.S. needs is a pro-immigration strategy that’s targeted to regions of the country where workforce shortages are most acute and where population growth is needed to help sustain schools, businesses, and provide volunteers for our emergency services. Just as we have programs that provide financial incentives to young doctors to locate in underserved parts of the country, we could tell interested immigrants they can obtain a green card or full-fledged citizenship if they agree to locate in regions, like ours, that desperately need new residents.
Sadly, much of the opposition to immigration is racially-tinged, led by a perception that new immigrants will be people of color. But here’s the reality. When it comes to the economy, there’s really only one color that matters, and it’s green. And a new immigrant’s dollar adds up just as well as anyone else’s.
And even those who aren’t in business have a vested interest in greater immigration. The U.S. birth rate is now so low, that it’s very likely we won’t generate enough revenue in the not-too-distant future to cover benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Remember, under those programs each generation of workers pays for the retirement benefits of the generation ahead of them. If the generation coming up behind the baby boom doesn’t have enough workers, we boomers are going to be in trouble.
As we’re already seeing, businesses will find ways to adapt to a lack of workers, mostly through automation. In the near future, you’ll place your order at the fast food joint with a machine, mines will be operated remotely, and computers will be writing news copy all by themselves (in fact, they already are in some cases). And that might solve our workforce issue, but here’s the rub— those robots and computers don’t pay taxes. They won’t pay for my Social Security, nor for yours. They won’t pay the gas taxes that fund our roads, or the income taxes that fund the rest of our state and federal budgets, or the property taxes that fund our local and county governments. And they won’t shop at the local grocery store or eat out at a restaurant.
Only people can do that. And we’re not making new ones like we used to. So, forget the scaremongering by the President or candidates who support his immigration policies. They’re just trying to play to unfounded fears to drum up support. We need more people here in northeastern Minnesota and, right now, attracting immigrants is the only way that’s going to happen.