The Partnership for a New American Economy has just issued a series of reports on the “Contributions of New Americans” in all fifty states and D.C. Among other interesting facts, the South Dakota report notes that foreign-born workers make up 48% of our butchers and meat-processing workforce, 40% of our industrial truck and tractor operators, and 17% of our postsecondary teachers. The South Dakota report notes stunning, locally insurmountable deficits in our sci/tech/math and healthcare jobs (e.g., 6,971 STEM jobs available in 2014, only 413 unemployed STEM workers) and concludes that we will need to bring in even more immigrants to fill those jobs and meet our needs.
“The Contributions of New Americans in South Dakota” notes that plain demographic fact—”an aging population and young people increasingly moving to urban areas” (sound familiar?)—hamstrings our workforce development. Molded Fiber Glass in Aberdeen and its general manager, David Giovannini, has addressed that chronic workforce shortage by recruiting immigrant labor. According to the report, Giovannini took his cue from Dakota Provisions in Huron, which met its labor needs by encouraging Karen refugees to come chop turkey:
Giovannini liked what he saw, gained an introduction to Karen community leaders, and slowly started hiring them. That was in 2011, when his Aberdeen plant employed 150 people. Today it employs 600 people, half of whom are American-born. “If we had not been able to tap into that reservoir of people, we would have had difficulty,” he says. “Quite frankly, the refugee workers have been critical to our success as a company” [Partnership for a New American Economy, “The Contributions of New Americans in South Dakota,” August 2016, p. 4].
Molded Fiber Glass appears to be making an effort to help its immigrant workers make themselves at home in the community:
Molded Fiber Glass pays above-average wages and offers benefits that rank in the top quartile for the area. It gives employees tuition-assistance for related college coursework and pays its immigrant workers to take English-language classes. In addition, human resources staff help refugees navigate life outside of work, assisting them in finding housing, cars, and doctors. They also help them read bills or school forms [PNAE, August 2016, pp. 4–5].
According to Giovannini, those efforts are helping refugees “meld into the community.” MFG’s investment in its workers also makes recruiting a lot easier:
And where the company once had to heavily recruit for labor, it now merely continues to treat workers well and lets word-of-mouth take over. Refugees have traveled from as far as Texas, Alaska, and Georgia to apply for jobs. “We still advertise, but not to the extent that we used to do it,” Giovannini says.
Four years ago, a car pulled up from North Carolina with six Karen refugees and all their worldly possessions inside. “They said, ‘Friends of ours work here and they said it’s a good place to work,’ ” Giovannini recalls. Like the other refugee workers, they all had legal U.S. resident status and passed a drug test. “We got jobs for all of them” [PNAE, August 2016, p. 5].
Giovannini says his immigrant workers are just like his grandparents:
“The productivity has been very good. Like many first-generation Americans, they’re here to do a job, make some money, and make things better for their children,” Giovannini says. “I can relate to it because my grandparents came over from Europe, and I can still remember what they did to make things go well for their kids. It’s interesting to see the same philosophy exist” [PNAE, August 2016, p. 5].
Immigrants built Aberdeen. Immigrants continue to build Aberdeen. Immigrants are South Dakota’s past and South Dakota’s future.
Related Reading: According to today’s Quartz, immigration to the United States historically signals lower unemployment, creates jobs, and improves the wages of workers already here.