Thursday, October 6, 2011

Here Are The Jobs

Imagine a country with an unemployment rate of 9.1% and an underemployment rate of 16% where hundreds of jobs go begging because people don't want to do them. How does that happen?

When the jobs are on farms picking fruits an vegetables, that's how. If you ever wondered why immigrant labor picks the vast majority of our produce and got slightly angry thinking they're taking jobs from Americans, then read this account from Wednesday's New York Times.

Hiring Locally for Farm Work Is No Cure-All

It tells that tale of a Colorado farmer, John Harold, who hired fewer immigrant laborers this year, thinking that local residents who were out of work would snap up the $10.50 an hour jobs on his farm.

“It didn’t take me six hours to realize I’d made a heck of a mistake,” Mr. Harold said, standing in his onion field on a recent afternoon as a crew of workers from Mexico cut the tops off yellow onions and bagged them. 

Six hours was enough, between the 6 a.m. start time and noon lunch break, for the first wave of local workers to quit. Some simply never came back and gave no reason. Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard. On the Harold farm, pickers walk the rows alongside a huge harvest vehicle called a mule train, plucking ears of corn and handing them up to workers on the mule who box them and lift the crates, each weighing 45 to 50 pounds.

Mr. Harold's assessment of his experience?

“They wanted that $10.50 an hour without doing very much,” he said. “I know people with college degrees, working for the school system and only making 11 bucks.” 

This is a complicated story about the mismatch between available work and the skills that potential workers have, but it should put to rest the fiction that legal and illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from American workers.

Mr. Harold’s experience is a repeated refrain where farm labor is seasonal and population sparse. And even many immigration hard-liners have come to agree that the dearth of Americans willing to work the fields requires some sort of rethinking, at least, of the H-2A program. Indeed, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, a conservative Republican, is pushing a bill that would greatly expand the number of foreign guest workers admitted to the country each year. 

That's a bill I can support. It will lead to more employment and the survival of farms.

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