Business Leaders Grappling With Workforce Shortage Call For Immigration Reform

Feb 25, 2019

Business leaders across Iowa are banding together and calling on Congress to reform the country’s immigration system. Employers, economic developers and trade organizations are organizing the effort because they say they’re facing major workforce shortages.

With the lowest unemployment in the country, employers in Iowa say business is stalling because they can’t find enough workers. Now some 40 business leaders are signing on to an agreement called the Iowa Compact on Immigration to urge lawmakers to find solutions that allow more immigrants to legally work in the country.

"What are the challenges? Workforce, workforce, workforce [...] it is an acute, major, singular issue preventing greater growth than we are seeing right now." - Doug Neumann, Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance

Doug Neumann, head of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, says workforce shortages are becoming dire.

"What are the challenges? Workforce, workforce, workforce, workforce, workforce and then a couple of other small things," Neumann said. "It is an acute, major, singular issue preventing greater growth than we are seeing right now."

Some employers say immigrants are critical to meeting their workforce needs, but they need more pathways to legal status. 

Scott Stimart leads the software engineering firm Genova Technologies in Cedar Rapids. He signed on to the Iowa Compact, and says he's in desperate need of more highly-skilled immigrant workers.

"The critical role immigration will play in driving continued economic growth for us is…is incredible. We look at what we’re trying to do with software and electrical engineers and the shortage among engineering is…is near critical,” Stimart said. "Our ability to attract new citizens [...] this is a driving impact for us in order to be able to grow in this area."

Some 40 business leaders have signed on to the compact, including small business owners, local development officials and chambers of commerce from Ames to Dubuque to Mason City to Marshalltown. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Business Council and Iowa Lodging Association also signed on, all in the hopes of getting the attention of local, state, and especially federal officials.

"The critical role immigration will play in driving continued economic growth for us is...is incredible." - Scott Stimart, Genova Technologies

The Compact doesn't outline special policy proposals, but supporters spoke to the need to find a pathway to legal status for the country's estimated 10.7 million undocumented residents. They also hope to emphasize the need for action at the federal level, with a focus on strengthening the economy and supporting families.

Tom Hughes leads Hughes Nursery and Landscaping in Cedar Rapids, and says there is more demand for his services than he can meet because of a lack of workers. From growing seedlings, caring for maturing plants, to rooting them into the soil in parks and lawns, Hughes says his industry, is characterized by jobs that "are not as sought after" and says agriculture in general would scarcely exist without immigrant workers. 

“The vast majority of even undocumented workers are only doing it to help themselves, and to help us," he said. "And they’re not doing it with a mean intent at all. So how can we work with them to, again, for the benefit of everybody, move forward from this point on.”

Some immigrant advocates say employers will need to invest more in their workers too, offering English language classes or extra job training.

"You have employers who are actually looking for individuals. And then you have individuals that do look for employment and want to work, and their work ethic is exceptional. However there is a disconnect either because of a language barrier or the culture barrier." - Rama Muzo, Intercultural Center of Iowa

Rama Muzo leads the Intercultural Center of Iowa, and says workers from immigrant and refugee communities may need some additional support and coaching to help than transition into new jobs.

"You have employers who are actually looking for individuals. And then you have individuals that do look for employment and want to work, and their work ethic is exceptional," Muzo said. "However there is a disconnect either because of a language barrier or the culture barrier."

Muzo says more widespread employment of foreign-born Iowans may take some flexibility from both sides.

"What are the employers willing to do to provide that accomodation?" he asked. "And what can the employees do outside of their circle, bubble, whatever it is, to actually be able to tap into opportunities?" 

The nation's larger debate on immigration and national security continues to reverberate across the country, at a time when some Iowa industries heavily rely on undocumented workers, and raids on unauthorized workers a possibility. Still, some business owners hope the Iowa Compact opens up minds and allows for constructive conversations. 

"I hope that the Iowa Compact is just one more piece to help people finally admit that we need to sit down and work this out and discuss it," Hughes said. "If that's the one thing that can come out of this I think that would be worthwhile."