The U.S. economy has a math problem.
Today, there are two open jobs for every one American. Meanwhile, the economy shrugs off this math dilemma and steadily adds thousands of jobs each month, pushing the unemployment rate down further. Today, just 3.7 percent of our nation’s working people are unemployed according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite concerns of an impending recession or the negative effects of inflation on individuals and the economy, companies are paying workers more, competing for fewer workers, and jobs continue to remain plentiful. In the manufacturing sector alone, there are more than 1 million job openings to make everything from tractors to shredded cheese. Eventually, according to the Manufacturing Institute in Washington, D.C., manufacturers will need to fill 4 million jobs by 2030.
If our economy is close to full employment today, then where will the workers come from? How will the United States maintain our nation’s food security and protect our position as a net exporter of food rather than rely on other countries to feed our people?
In my industry, which makes and sells dairy products from milk and butter to cheese and yogurt, labor shortages are costing food processors significant time and resources and hampering the industry’s ability to keep costs low for consumers. Prices for dairy products at retail climbed nearly 16 percent this year, driven in part by shortages in labor, ingredients, packaging, and rising transportation expenses. In fact, at a time when U.S. dairy foods makers see record demand for dairy products, dairy processing plants are operating with a consistent 10-20 percent shortfall in workers, making it difficult to keep up with demand or lower prices.
Despite offering higher pay, benefits, flexibility in schedule, and stepping up recruitment and retention efforts, dairy foods makers just cannot make the math work. In other words—there are not enough workers to fill the jobs today and into the future and our inability to fill open positions is becoming a major national security concern.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the food industry—farmers, food processors, and food marketers and retailers—are considered an “essential critical infrastructure workforce” in the United States, afforded special considerations and national security protections in times of crisis, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensure the food supply remains plentiful and our population remains secure.
However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that 2023 will be the first year in U.S. history that the country will import more food than it produces, making the U.S. increasingly reliant on other countries for food. Clearly, labor shortages in the food industry pose a threat to our food security and our national security.
You don’t need to be a math whiz to see the solution staring us right in the face. We need a consistent, reliable pool of available labor that strengthens the domestic supply of food and keeps food prices in check for consumers.
Today, most Americans support immigration reform and a significant majority support it as a specific way to combat rising food prices. A new survey from polling firm Morning Consult, supported by the International Dairy Foods Association, found that 82 percent of voters want to see Republicans and Democrats work together to lower food prices through immigration reform. In fact, 9 in 10 Democratic voters and 8 in 10 Republican and Independent voters support legislative efforts at immigration reform.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is a commonsense, bipartisan bill that will help ensure a secure, reliable labor force for our agriculture and food industry. Simply put, it solves the math problem in a way that benefits everyone. Important to the dairy industry, the bill would provide more flexibility for employers with year-round labor needs, while ensuring critical protections for workers. It supports border security by establishing a mandatory, nationwide e-verify system that would allow enrolled employers to confirm the eligibility of their employees to legally work in the United States.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act has twice passed the House of Representatives, and now the U.S. Senate is developing its version of the bill with hopes of passing it during the December lame duck session.
It’s time for Congress to solve this math problem and bring relief to millions of Americans struggling with high grocery bills by passing the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
Michael Dykes, D.V.M., is the president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association based in Washington, D.C.
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