WorkforceFinding Workers: Creative and Innovative Solutions to the Labor Crisis Do Exist!
A labor crisis is growing in the green industry. And it will soon become apparent in industries across the full spectrum of the American economy. What is causing the crisis? And, what can you do to address it in your company?
The Agricultural and Service-Sector Labor Problem
“American workers don’t want to dig trees in the field or plant trees in someone’s yard anymore.” This is a growing refrain echoed by many business owners in the green industry. Is this commonly-accepted statement true? First, it is a good idea to ask another important question: When did Americans last perform these kinds of tasks in large numbers?
“There aren’t any young college kids left in Bucks County who want to maintain my golf courses in the summer,” a Philadelphia business owner recently told me. A Chester County farmer recently noted before a group of DC policymakers, “We haven’t had American workers interested in these jobs in 20 years.”
Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy agrees with these sentiments. He notes that as early as 1940, entry level ag work at nurseries in the United States was performed mostly by Mexican migrant workers. Anderson pinpoints World War II and the economic boom of the 1950s as critical factors in the migration of the American laborer from the farm to the cities and suburbs and then the emergence of the Mexican farmworker. By bringing in legal Mexican workers, the Bracero program reduced undocumented worker levels by 95 percent from 1954 to 1959. With the scaling back of Bracero in the 1960s came the advent of large-scale undocumented immigration that continues to this day.
But whether under Bracero or under today’s broken immigration system, Mexican and Latin American labor has clearly been the driving force behind American agriculture. The current emphasis by Washington policymakers, focused upon “cracking down” on ag employers, threatens this bedrock workforce. But the nature of the worker is unlikely to change; 75-80 percent of ag workers will probably remain foreign; yet their numbers will begin to shrink under the pressure of proposed and existing crackdown laws. These workers will be in demand, but they will be harder and harder to find.
When did Americans last perform agricultural industry tasks in large numbers? Stuart Anderson would suggest 1940.
The Hourglass Effect
Each American generation typically produces the generation that follows. The “Greatest Generation” produced the baby boomers. The boomers, in turn, actually produced two generations: generation x (those born between 1964 and 1978) and generation y (also known as “the millennials”) -- (those born between 1978 and 2000). But the boomers are now starting to enter retirement age. Who will replace their open positions in the workforce? The numbers present a problem: There are 75 million boomers, and only 35 million x-ers to take their places in the job market. Waiting behind the x-ers are the creative and entrepreneurial young careerists of generation y, but it will be a while before their ranks—70 million strong—will have a chance to fill these slots.
In the meantime, the next 20 years or so will bring the American economy an unprecedented labor crisis. Andrew Zolli, founder of the counsulting firm Z+ Partners, puts it this way: The labor pyramid “…will assume the form of an hourglass, with the largest number of older people in our society’s history, the quasi-retired baby boomers, up top, and the largest generation of young people since the boomers—the millennials—at the bottom. The beleaguered generation x-ers will form the “pinched waist” in the middle.”
Welcome to the Hourglass Effect—the rising crisis in American labor markets. It will only compound the foreign labor problem already facing the green industry.
A streamlining of the bureaucratic H-2A program and the under-capped H-2B program would go a long way toward restoring the rule of law to broken labor markets in the green industry and agriculture at large. But Congress completing this task anytime soon seems unlikely in the current political climate. In the meantime, are there alternatives to existing labor markets that green industry business owners can use?
From welfare to work programs to the hiring of Amish workers nearby, Pennsylvania offers a number of creative and innovative solutions that many of our business owners are already using. Here are some alternatives:
- Welfare to Work
Some business owners have teamed up with local social services agencies to help transition individuals on public assistance back into the workforce. Welfare-to-work programs can be successful if the coordination between local officials and the business owner is strong. Benefits of this approach include subsidized costs, including wages, for the participating employer. “Some of our workers have done quite well in this program,” notes Doug Henry of Henry Molded Products, Lebanon County. “But it doesn’t always work out.” Still, Henry stresses, it is worth the effort by a business owner to look into the programs offered locally and find out what is available. “Don’t miss out on opportunities for our veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Henry adds. “These folks eventually need jobs, and the government will help them find work at your business if you are proactive.” Henry notes that wages can be subsidized for veterans at least at the level of a 50 percent match. Tax credits are also available.
- U.S. Citizens From Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican citizens can come to work in the U.S. without a green card. They can stay here as citizens if they ultimately decide to. “I don’t know why more companies in Pennsylvania haven’t tried this,” states Hagan Hetz of Fairview Evergreen Nurseries, Erie County. Fairview started recruiting workers in Puerto Rico over 80 years ago. Today, their Puerto Rican-dominated workforce lives in Erie County. “The first ones eventually settled here in Erie, and now the second- and third-generation family members work the land. We don’t need to recruit in Puerto Rico any longer,” Hetz explains. Finding willing workers in Puerto Rico wasn’t hard, Hetz notes. “But we had to work some things out with the Puerto Rican Labor Department,” he adds. Hetz also says that there was never a need to contact a member of Congress for help: “We didn’t need to go that far to resolve the issues that came up.”
For the filling of certain positions, retirees can be a good source of new workers. That has certainly been Mike Feeney’s experience. Feeney, who owns Feeney’s Wholesale Nursery, Bucks County, has found that retirees can help fulfill his workforce needs, particularly when it comes to driving trucks. “The guys we hired come out of northeast Philadelphia, and they like the work, the limited hours, and the flexibility in scheduling,” he says. “You have to get creative to compete in the current market for hiring, and that’s what we did.” Feeney notes that the retirees he hired are for specific jobs, not general agricultural work on the nursery. “But you have to look at your company and figure out where slots can be filled and by whom. There are lots of retirees out there looking for part-time work. Our guys are happy to do this work, and that takes care of one important need at our nursery.”
- Amish Workers
Pennsylvania has more Amish citizens than any other state in the union. Business owners like Jim MacKenzie of Octoraro Native Plant Nursery have utilized this workforce. “The Amish that we have employed work for us in between other jobs that they perform on their farms and in their companies,” MacKenzie notes. “Their community has a strong work ethic, and they enjoy agricultural employment.” Amish workers have been a good match for green industry businesses across Pennsylvania, particularly in the central and western regions. MacKenzie adds that with the downsizing and diversification of family farms, including Amish farms, many Amish are looking for outside agricultural employment to supplement their family incomes. “The work they do at our nursery is a good fit for the Amish in our area, thanks to the community’s strong emphasis on agriculture.”
- Work Release Programs
Incarcerated individuals are available for employment throughout the Commonwealth. Doug Henry, who has partnered with judges in Central Pennsylvania, has found the work release program in Lebanon to be helpful to his company. “We employ nonviolent offenders, and they do good work for us.” Henry notes that the proximity of a business location to a prison is an important part of the equation. “If the individual is close by and is in trouble for a child-support violation or a similar simple offense, they often do well at our company. Working for us is more interesting than sitting around in a cell.”