Food industry awaits immigration policy with bated breath

by Keith Nunes
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Keith Nunes

A central tenet of President-Elect Donald J. Trump’s election campaign focused on immigration. Specifically, Mr. Trump proposed building a wall along the nation’s southern border with Mexico to keep people from crossing into the United States illegally. Mr. Trump also committed to deporting individuals who may have crossed illegally in the past and are currently living in the country. With his impending inauguration, the degree to which the Trump administration will seek to fulfill these commitments is an open question, one likely to have a major impact on companies throughout the food and beverage supply chain.

Heightening concern about possible moves the administration may take is the steadily-building strength of the United States’ economy. The nation’s unemployment rate stood at 4.6 per cent as of November 2016. As the national economy has improved during the past few years more people have found work in industries less challenging than positions available in the food and agriculture industries.

A study commissioned by Meat+Poultry Magazine, a publication owned by Food Business News’ parent company Sosland Publishing Co., shows finding and hiring skilled workers to be the No. 1 concern of meat industry executives surveyed. Fifty-nine per cent of respondents expressed serious concern about the issue. Labor concerns even edged out food safety worries, cited as an important meat industry issue by 56 per cent of respondents.

At the farm level, employers continue to face difficulties hiring people willing and capable of doing work that is often physically demanding, sometimes conducted year-round and sometimes seasonally. For people newly arrived from other countries, such jobs often offer economic opportunities, and they are willing to go where the work is available.

At the other end of the supply chain, food service operators are finding the situation challenging as well. Over the next decade, restaurants likely will create more jobs than the U.S.-born workforce can fill, according to the National Restaurant Association. The industry is expected to add 1.8 million positions over the next decade, which would represent a 14 per cent increase in the industry’s workforce. But the U.S.-born workforce is expected to grow by just 10 per cent over the same period. And the population of 16- to 24-year-olds, a major source of restaurant employees, isn’t expected to grow at all.

In some segments of the food and beverage supply chain, automation may be expected to fill some of the gaps created by a lack of workers. Yet there are some aspects of food production and processing that are not easily automated. Plus, skilled workers also will be required to operate and maintain the equipment providing automation.

Proposing the construction of border walls and deporting people living in the United States illegally may play well on the campaign trail, but it is no replacement for sound policy. Groups such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Restaurant Association have put forth legislative and policy proposals to fix what many consider a broken system.

Immigration reform is not a new issue. It has been debated in the past and routinely passed forward for someone else to address. As the United States stands at the brink of what may be considered a severe crackdown on illegal immigration it is also the right time for the embrace of policies that may resupply the pool of skilled labor in the country.

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