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Employers in the United States are struggling to fill an estimated 11 million open jobs. The pandemic is most blamed, but there is another factor that receives less attention. Fewer and fewer immigrants are coming to take these jobs, especially in some key industries that drive the economy. NPR’s Joel Rose reports.
(EXCERPT FROM STARTING THE TRUCK ENGINE)
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: This truck stop is like any other on Interstate 81 in central Pennsylvania except for the restaurant, where chef and owner Jagdeep Nayyar throws in spices and herbs like cilantro and fenugreek in a frying pan.
JAGDEEP NAYYAR: It’s paneer bhurji – cheese – Indian cheese, cracked cheese – yeah – tomato and onion sauce.
ROSE: A few years ago, Nayyar shut down the Subway franchise that was located here and he opened My Taste of India, one of the many roadside restaurants across the country that cater primarily to truckers with roots in the northwest Indian state of Punjab; like Gurtaj Singh (ph), who’s having dinner on his way to Kentucky.
GURTAJ SINGH: I just stopped to eat. Here is a good Punjabi restaurant. Everything they do is very pretty.
RAMAN SINGH DHILLON: The Punjabi community is getting into trucking, that’s a huge number. It’s in the blood.
ROSE: Raman Singh Dhillon heads the North American Punjabi Trucking Association. In Fresno, California, where Dhillon lives, there is a long-standing Punjabi community. Over the past decade, Dhillon said the Punjabis have taken to trucking a lot and now represent up to a fifth of the industry nationwide. But Dhillon says growth has been limited in recent years as the coronavirus dampened the U.S. immigration system.
DHILLON: There are a lot of people who should have entered the country legally, couldn’t get in. I have several people around me whose family members are stuck in India because their interviews are not over. And many of these newcomers, when they arrive, their favorite industry to join is trucking.
ROSE: Economists say the United States is lacking more than a million immigrant workers who would otherwise be here without the pandemic and cuts in legal immigration during the Trump administration. Some industries may feel this shortage even more strongly because they are heavily dependent on immigrant workers; such as food services and health care, which both have more than a million jobs open, as well as in trucking and warehousing, where about 1 in 5 workers is foreign born. Jeremy Robbins is the head of the American Immigration Council.
JEREMY ROBBINS: If you can’t get the key workers you need, the whole industry slows down and the whole economy slows down. It has a real impact, not just on themselves and not just on the industries they will be working on, but on the economy as a whole.
ROSE: Almost everyone agrees that fewer immigrants entered the U.S. workforce last year, but not everyone thinks that’s a problem.
ROY BECK: My point is, it’s good. The tightness of the work is good.
ROSE: Roy Beck is the head of NumbersUSA, a nonprofit in Washington that lobbies for lower immigration levels. And he’s the author of a new book called “Back Of The Hiring Line”.
BECK: There is evidence that you are tightening the labor market and wages are going up. It always happens. The fact that we had one less immigration year contributed to that, and that’s good. This is one of the most positive things that could happen to tackle economic inequality.
ROSE: Beck argues that too much immigration hurts native-born workers, especially those with less education, although many economists say the effect is small. By all accounts, there are other, bigger reasons for the current labor shortage, with millions of workers retiring or reluctant to return to work during the pandemic. But it would be a mistake to ignore the effects of immigration, says Karthick Ramakrishnan. He teaches public policy at the University of California, Riverside.
KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: If you had a slowdown in immigration when there is very little demand for labor, you’re not going to see as much of an effect. But we saw a lot of demand for labor even before the pandemic, and it has only accelerated.
ROSE: Right now, with millions of job vacancies, Ramakrishnan says there is a lot of demand for labor.
RAMAKRISHNAN: So absolutely the slowdown in immigration is making a difference.
ROSE: Missing immigrants wouldn’t fill all the vacancies, says Ramakrishnan, but they could help.
Joel Rose, NPR News.
(EXCERPT FROM BRAD MEHLDAU, KEVIN HAYS, “PATRICK ZIMMERLI CRAZY QUILT”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.