July 21, 2021
By Frank Knapp Jr., Opinion Contributor
Just as they are across the country, small businesses in South Carolina are facing a labor shortage that started before the pandemic. Our senator, Lindsey Graham (R), is key to the short and long-term solution by passing commonsense, bipartisan immigration solutions including his Dream Act, which is co-sponsored with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). We need Sen. Graham to work across the aisle for comprehensive immigration reform that South Carolina and the nation’s small businesses need right now.
Almost every small business owner with employees will tell you that they simply cannot find the workers they need to meet customer demand.
The “help wanted” signs are not only for lower-skilled workers such as in the hospitality industry. Professional and highly skilled employees are also being sought with limited success in this country.
The reasons given for the country’s labor shortage are numerous: childcare issues, college students not physically in school, underlying health conditions of workers, career changes, and federal unemployment benefits disincentivizing work.
The latter is the reason 24 governors have already terminated their federal unemployment benefits. Louisiana will join them this month. Yet, the “help wanted” signs are still up in those states and their local small-business economies have lost tens of millions in federal dollars.
The reality is that our country has been experiencing a growing labor shortage for some time. The pandemic simply accelerated and exposed the problem as a national crisis.
A Brookings report analyzed available 2020 U.S. census data and concluded that we might be in “the smallest decade-long growth rate in America’s history” with a “rate at nearly zero.”
We are an aging population that the report calls an “unprecedented demographic stagnation.” We are simply not producing the young people we need for skilled and less-skilled jobs for today and in the future.
Other countries in Asia, Europe, and even Central America are also experiencing decreasing population growth and aging populations. Their economies are also being threatened by labor shortages.
However, the United States is more fortunate than these other countries in that we have a ready solution to the problem. People around the world want to live and work in our country.
The Brookings report concludes, “One way to secure more rapid growth of the youth population would be to increase immigration…given our rapidly aging native-born population, immigration will ensure growth — especially among the critical youth and labor force populations.”
Our long-term answer to the U.S. labor shortage is a sensible immigration policy to allow for higher levels of legal immigration of youth and working-age adults.
However, while we wait for the politicians to agree on what the country’s immigration levels should be going forward, Congress can quickly move on bipartisan bills already filed to address immediate concerns.
There are about 1.8 million young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally when they were children. These Dreamers have lived here almost all their lives but continue to struggle today with the uncertainty of being deported despite the education they have managed to achieve and the jobs they hold.
The promise to our economy that these Dreamers offer cannot be fully realized until they are given permanent legal status and a pathway to citizenship. If passed, the Durbin/Graham Dream Act of 2021 would set in motion the full economic potential of these youth to help our economy.
There are other Senate bills to shore up our existing immigrant workforce. The SECURE Act addresses immigrants who have been given a Temporary Protected Status and the Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) Senate companion bill to the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would address immigrant farmworkers. The House has already addressed most of these issues with the Dream and Promise Act, which passed with broad bipartisan support.
Our small businesses and economy need these Senate bills passed quickly. They are the low-hanging fruit in our needed commonsense immigration policy reform.
Unfortunately, politics is standing in the way of even the easiest actions.
The refugee problem on our southern border has now become the cited obstacle to any immigration reform.
Graham is reported to have said last month that he does not see any chance of any immigration reform right now given the country’s border problem. It is unclear if this would apply to his own Dream Act of 2021. It should not.
Solutions are within our grasp. If Republicans, including Graham, don’t step up, Democrats should do it. There will be progress this year. The only question is whether it will include the Republicans. Bottom line — not doing anything before year’s end is not acceptable.
Businesses small and large are looking for problem solving in Congress on the issue of our labor shortage. We need individual members of Congress to be leaders, not followers of political consultants who are only concerned with creating wedge issues to win the next election.
The census tells us the real underlying reason for our labor shortage — demographic stagnation — and the best way forward — immigration reform.
Sen. Graham, South Carolina and all businesses are looking for you to lead.
Frank Knapp is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, a member of the American Business Immigration Coalition.