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As Shortages Continue, Businesses Look to Immigrant Workers

The Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office predicts that labor market conditions will remain tight through 2025, prompting some employers to turn to foreign workers through federal immigration programs for help.

a worker in the Richoche
A worker sews clothing in the Ricochet manufacturing facility in Philadelphia. (Monica Herndon/TNS)
(TNS) — Employers across Pennsylvania are experiencing ongoing challenges hiring and retaining staff.

The Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office said near-term demographic trends suggest labor market conditions will remain tight through 2025.

In the near term, the state labor market shortage can "only be alleviated through three channels," according to the IFO, and one of those channels is higher levels of international migration.

"When managed in a controlled and stable manner, research finds that international migration has net positive economic impacts for state and national economies," the IFO said in an October research brief.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services matches employers and employees through varying categories of visas — for temporary, seasonal workers as well as permanent workers with Green Cards who can continue living in the United States and pursue citizenship after fulfilling contracts with employers.

Cambria County has been losing population for decades, especially in the prime workforce age range.

March estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that most Pennsylvania counties, including Cambria and Somerset counties, continue to see their populations shrink — by as much as 2 percent between July 2021 and 2022.

In addition, employers have suffered an onslaught of retirements since 2021.

'Ability to Fill Positions'

After 50 years of hiring locally, landscaping business owner George Milkie has run into a rash of employee retirements along with a shallow labor market in the past couple years that have made him consider hiring foreign workers through federal immigration programs.

He's hardly alone in having trouble finding employees, and he's not unique in at least having considered making hires from abroad.

Over the winter, Milkie began the process of petitioning for employees from other countries who hold work visas.

Milkie is not able to wade into the waters of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services himself, he said. He has inquired with two different law firms that handle submitting petitions. The permitting and licensing process could cost him up to $12,000, let alone attorney fees, he said.

"I did it out of desperation," he said. "We are down to about two-thirds of the size we were three years ago, due to lack of ability to fill positions with qualified people."

The federal government requires employers seeking immigrant employees to show that there are not enough U.S. workers for the job, and that isn't traditionally an easy task.

"I think most guys get turned down, but I'm understanding it's easier now because it's a well-known fact that nationwide it's a problem," he said.

However, since Milkie's initial interview on the topic, his business has not hired immigrant workers.

Local construction companies may work with migrant subcontractors that travel from larger metropolitan areas, but Barry Himes, operations manager of ServiceMaster Restore by Johnstown Construction, said the company hasn't hired immigrant workers directly.

"We looked into it a couple months ago," he said, "but in order to do it, you need to arrange housing for them."

Despite difficulty in finding qualified workers, Himes said he's maintaining a crew and is holding them close.

"This labor shortage is a tough nut to crack, for sure," he said. "I don't know why. Seven years ago, it was not as tough. The pay has gone up, but the labor pool is just not there."

Many business leaders in Cambria and Somerset counties say pursuing immigrant employees isn't a viable immediate option for them. For some, the nature of their companies' work under contract for federal government agencies requires the contracted work to be done by U.S. citizens.

"It's not that we wouldn't look at visa holders," said Chad Manippo, human resources manager for the H.F. Lenz engineering company. "Most positions we are looking to fill have to be U.S. citizens due to our company being a government contractor."

The same response was given by Galliker's Dairy in Richland Township, which has federal milk contracts for schools; Concurrent Technologies Corp., a Richland Township-based applied scientific research and development professional services organization; and Johnstown's JWF Industries, which designs, manufactures, and integrates metal-centric products for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Politics, Lessons Learned

JWF President Bill Polacek said hires can be made if immigrants become citizens after a period of years living in the United States.

"But I would still need a background check, which can be difficult to retrieve from certain countries," he said.

Polacek is also chairman of Vision Together 2025, a nonprofit that targets economic development in the region. The organization became the focus of a controversy a year ago when documents apparently outlining a plan to bring Afghan refugees to the Johnstown area became public.

Polacek said he regretted his and the organization's silence in response to the situation and for not involving state elected officials in discussions from the start.

State legislators representing Johnstown became vocal about what they saw as the organization's quasi-governmental actions after the Afghan refugee information came to light.

"We should have included legislators," Polacek said.

He said the organization never planned to bring unvetted refugees. The plan was moot even before it came to light, he said. He learned even before the issue broke that Vision Together 2025 was not the type of agency that the federal government would allow to receive refugees.

Polacek said Vision Together 2025 has discontinued all work to connect area businesses with immigrants of any country, including Afghanistan, because of the controversy.

A local restaurant owner declined to talk about the potential for exploring an international hiring opportunity.

"People get mad," she said, "and then they don't support. It's politics, and you don't talk about that."

Some employers have requested information individually on the process of hiring workers with immigration visas and Green Cards for permanent residency, former Southern Alleghenies Workforce Development Board Director Susan Whisler said.

"When you look at the region's demographics, taking a close look at who makes up our residents — over 23 percent, or nearly one in four, people in this region are age 65 and older," Whisler said last winter, months before she herself retired.

"We knew this landscape was ahead of us, that we were going to be facing a point where there simply are not enough job-seekers for positions," she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic that hit in 2020 accelerated the departure of baby boomers from the workforce.

As nurses resigned in droves nationwide after the pandemic, Conemaugh Health System gained 31 international employees through an employment-based immigration visa program that it hadn't used in the past.

Most of those nurses are from the Philippines in southeast Asia, while some of them are from the African countries of Kenya and Ghana, and a few are from Jamaica and Antigua. Their spouses and children have accompanied them. It's a way for their whole family to eventually migrate.

Conemaugh's hiring of international nurses began under the health system's now-retired market president and Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center CEO, Bill Caldwell.

"There's a shortage of nurses — it's a nationwide shortage," he said. "In our service area, just based on demographics, it's probably going to get worse. This is something that keeps you up at night."

Efforts to include comments from new Conemaugh CEO Rodney Reider were unsuccessful.

Caldwell pointed to an Association of American Medical Colleges study that forecasts a primary care physician shortage of between 33,700 and 86,700 by 2033.

The study takes into account trends, including an aging U.S. population that would drive increased demand for care for older Americans while a large portion of the physician workforce is nearing traditional retirement age.

"The immigration component on physician supply and demand is going to be very crucial," he said.

(c)2023 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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