Further Reply to the NY Times on Those Jobs in Rural Iowa

By David North on August 6, 2021

Last month we commented on an op-ed piece in the New York Times calling for more international migration to fill some jobs in rural Iowa. The area in question was Madison County, which turns out to be in the Des Moines suburbs, and the needed jobs could be easily filled by tapping into the broader area’s underemployed African-American population.

But what would happen if Madison County was not at the edge of the suburbs, but instead was surrounded, as is much of Iowa, by a lot of corn and not too many people? Can an argument be made for international migration as the answer to a perceived “labor shortage”?

Kevin Lynn, the executive director of Progressives for Immigration Reform, has one solid approach to the problem: Simply raise wages. He cites the prevailing wage for farm jobs as $16/hour in the county, about half the average wage for the county’s workers generally.

It is amazing what happens to a “labor shortage” when the offered hourly wages are raised by a dollar or two.

But there are other ways, combined with a decent wage structure, that can help with what might be seen, at first, as a shortage of workers. A little creativity goes a long way.

Explore Neglected Segments of the Workforce. One of the lessons of World War II, when there was a genuine shortage of workers in many parts of the country, is often forgotten by current employers. During WWII, suddenly old concepts of who could do certain kinds of work were eliminated, women (such as Rosie the Riveter) were seen as potential manual workers; African-American employment in war factories boomed, and the recently retired were welcomed back to work.

Similarly, and right now, the disabled and recently released and current prisoners can be utilized. One of the frequently overlooked sources of potential workers, a booming population because of our strict prison policies, are those living in correction centers, which are often placed in rural areas.

Examine Part-Time Work Arrangements. Some workers are available only on a part-time basis, such as young mothers who can work during school hours, but not otherwise, and they can be used to fill certain labor market requirements. In other words, one way to solve “shortages” is to adjust the job. Employers often find it easier to adjust the workforce, rather than change the way they do business.

Increase Day Care Facilities. Instead of bringing in aliens from tens of thousands of miles away, at a substantial cost to society generally, why not increase the number and the quality of day care facilities so that parents can work a full eight hours, while the kids are cared for by the schools, and other entities?

Create Job-Sharing Arrangements. One rarely discussed technique for filling jobs that require 40 hours of work each week, for instance, is not to seek a single worker to show up eight hours a day, five days a week. Rather, use a group that agrees to make sure that someone is working at all hours needed, but may consist of different people at different days and times.

Think about the Schools and Colleges as Worker Sources. A large population of half-time workers can be recruited from our schools and colleges under most circumstances, with full-time workers available in the summer and on weekends.

One specific form of cooperation between an industry and school systems can be found in the northern part of Maine, in Aroostook County. Some school districts open school two weeks early in August, and then close down during the last half of September each year so that everyone can participate in the potato harvest. I learned of this arrangement (which clearly limits any need for foreign workers) when I was working on farm labor for the U.S. Department of Labor half a century ago. To find out if this pattern continues, I called the Aroostook County Courthouse and learned that this practice is still alive and well.

So we need not resort to international migration to fill those jobs. The arrangements I have suggested above require more money in certain instances and more flexible work systems in others; but too many employers would rather have a loose labor market than explore alternative systems.

And, in this instance, the normally intelligent New York Times dropped the ball.