Immigrants Are The Answer to Council Bluffs’ Labor Shortage
It’s tough to be in business right now. At Boxer Barbecue in Council Bluffs, Executive Chef Michael Nolan is constantly advertising for workers, but says he’s lucky to get a single qualified applicant in any given month. As a result, he and his team are putting in 70-hour weeks to churn out enough Moink Balls and Smokin’ Hot Pig sandwiches for their hungry customers.
At the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce, we hear stories like this all the time. Our metro area’s unemployment rate has fallen to an incredible 1.5%, and while it’s good to have people working, our restaurants, factories and construction sites are struggling for find talent.
Fortunately, we have a secret weapon to help us solve this problem: our region’s growing population of international workers. According to New Americans in Omaha-Council Bluffs, a new research report from New American Economy, immigrants are helping drive economic growth in our region. Increasingly, our employers depend on them to meet labor demand and grow their businesses.
According to NAE, the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area is now home to almost 74,000 immigrants--about 8% of our total population. That might not sound like much, but our foreign-born neighbors tend to be younger than the average: They represent 10.6% of our working-age population, and almost 12% of employees in science and tech-related industries.
What’s more, immigrants tend to gravitate to the tough jobs where demand for labor is greatest. More than 22% of our region’s manufacturing jobs are held by foreign-born workers, along with almost 16% of construction jobs and more than 12% of hospitality jobs. One out of every 25 immigrants in our community works in our meat processing plants; almost one in 16 is a cleaner or janitor. This international workforce helps to bolster our home-grown labor pool in vital ways. Still, we need more people to fill these gaps; as long as they’re hardworking and reliable, it shouldn’t matter whether they were born in Council Bluffs or abroad.
Remember, too, that if businesses can’t find the workers they need here, they will be forced to consider the option of moving their operations elsewhere. By preventing that, NAE estimates, immigrants in our region have helped create or preserve at least 3,400 local manufacturing jobs that would have otherwise disappeared or relocated.
These workers are also having a powerful impact on our local economy, paying huge sums in taxes and spending the money they earn to support local businesses. In 2019, our area’s foreign-born residents contributed $5.1 billion to local GDP, and paid $301.8 million in federal taxes, and $182.0 million in state and local taxes — money that goes to build roads and pay for the police, schools, and hospitals upon which we all depend.
Our city’s immigrants, in other words, provide vital frontline services that benefit us all. In the process, of course, they also put down roots in our community: across southwestern Iowa, almost 38% of our foreign-born neighbors have already gained U.S. citizenship; they are fully committed to our shared community.
When we talk about immigration, we should enforce our nation’s laws and ask newcomers to play by the rules. But let’s also remember that immigrants play a vital role in supporting our economy and our businesses. If we want to beat brain drain, support our aging population, and lighten the load for employees working 70-hour weeks just to keep the doors open, we’re going to need immigrants. So let’s give our foreign-born neighbors a warm welcome. They truly are valued members of our Council Bluffs community.
* Drew Kamp is President and CEO of the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce