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Jan 30, 201811:15 AMInside Wisconsin

with Tom Still

Compromise in U.S. immigration debate could help Wisconsin

(page 1 of 2)

The bipartisan deal that ended the federal government shutdown and left open the door for a congressional solution on immigration is an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Wisconsin’s workforce crisis demands it.

Whether it’s dairy and agriculture, information technology, construction, tourism, or manufacturing, virtually every sector of the Wisconsin economy employs foreign-born workers. About 6% of the state’s workforce is foreign-born, and the percentage of immigrant workers in sectors such as the dairy industry has been pegged at 50% or more.

The impact of those workers can be measured in terms of productivity, buying power, entrepreneurship, and tax revenues, and the numbers are impressive. Immigrants are filling jobs that native-born Americans either don’t want or aren’t trained to do, and they’re replacing some of the baby boomers who are retiring by the droves.

The need for workers in almost every corner of the Wisconsin economy was underlined this past week by a series of events, unrelated except for the fact they all touched on the shortage of people to fill jobs.

  • Gus Faucher, senior vice president and chief economist of The PNC Financial Services Group, told the Wisconsin Bankers Association this week that most signs point to a longer U.S. economic expansion — with the noteworthy exception of worker supply. That’s true in many states but more so in Wisconsin, he said, due to its low in-migration rate.
  • A new report on Wisconsin’s place in the advanced energy sector predicted the state could add 44,000 jobs a year, many of them tied to the production of sensors and controls. One of the drawbacks, the report noted, could be the supply of workers to fill those jobs.
  • Representatives of the New York-based Markle Foundation, which supports skill training and coaching projects, toured Wisconsin to size up what’s being done to develop the workforce. At every stop, they were told by business leaders, academics, and government officials that Wisconsin needs more workers now and for decades to come.

And yet, the nation has yet to come to grips with the need to update immigration policies, which range from literally being a lottery in the case of H1B visas for more educated workers, to just plain nonsensical for less skilled workers who contribute mightily to the economy. Clashes of culture and values, not to mention old-fashioned fear of outsiders, leave the issue open for political demagoguery.

There’s a glimmer of hope for a more comprehensive approach now that members of Congress, essentially negotiating without President Trump, ended the shutdown with a promise of bringing an immigration bill to a floor vote within weeks.

The deal came about because many Republicans grimaced at the thought of displacing thousands of families who had legally called America home for nearly 20 years, and many Democrats recognized they can’t justify open-ended benefits for illegal immigrants when those benefits aren’t available to citizens or others here legally.

(Continued)

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About This Blog

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

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