The U.S. pork industry generates more than 550,000 jobs, providing economic growth and prosperity in rural areas throughout the country.
From 2001 to 2015, pork production employment grew 2.1% annually, three times faster than employment growth in the rest of the economy. In addition, total and weekly wages grew much faster than the U.S. average over this 15-year span. With these increased opportunities for employment and rapid wage growth, why is it so hard to find workers?
There’s no question that raising pigs is not easy. It’s a year-round job that requires skilled caretakers in order to provide a safe, quality food product for the world.
“The work force has changed,” says Heidi Vittetoe, co-owner of JWV Pork, an 80-employee operation that sells around 400,000 pigs a year in Washington, Iowa. “Back when I was growing up, your work force was the farm kids from your neighborhood who grew up around pigs. There are not many of those workers anymore.”
Vittetoe is looking for employees who are willing and able to work.
“I am looking for highly motivated people for our team,” Vittetoe says. “You can be highly educated and highly lazy. And conversely, you can have no education and be willing to work because you have a purpose. Finding motivated employees is key.”
Where’s the work force?
Locating reliable workers is becoming more difficult. The national unemployment rate was 3.6% in June. Rural areas, especially those with large hog inventories like Iowa, experience even tighter labor supplies.
Nick Giordano, National Pork Producers Council vice president and counsel of global government affairs, addressed this severe shortage of labor in the pork industry – both on farms and in packing plants – in "Meat of the Matter."
He cited a study from Iowa State University economists that said a reduction in the foreign-born workforce would not be offset by native-born workers and permanent residents. The study said a change in immigration policy aimed at restricting access to foreign-born workers would increase production costs and decrease agricultural output. The result? Jeopardizing rural economic growth.
H-2A Visa Program reform needed
Compounding the demographic realities faced by the pork sector is a visa system that fails to meet the unique needs of livestock production, Giordano said.
The H-2A visa program, created in 1987 under the Immigration Reform and Control Act, allows a foreign national entry into the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work for as short as one month to up to 10 months.
“Our production is a year-round endeavor and due to its seasonality component, pig farmers are unable to secure their workforce needs through the H-2A visa program,” Giordano wrote. “Agricultural visa reform is clearly needed.”
Additionally, the program is fraught with bureaucratic red tape, according to Giordano.
“Even if a farmer was able to bring in a worker under the H-2A program, he or she would spend an unreasonable amount of time and resources complying with the regulations,” he wrote. “These transaction costs are time and money diverted from what the farmer does best: caring for the needs of the pigs in the barn.”
Agricultural visa programs need more flexibility to meet the needs of all agricultural producers—from fruit and vegetable farmers to dairy and pig farmers, Giordano wrote. He believes year-round labor needs should be a primary focus of any H-2A reform or the foundation of any new program.
NPPC also said management of the visa program should be shifted from the Department of Labor to the USDA, which would apply a greater understanding of the labor requirements of American farmers.
“The H2-A visa program does not work for livestock farmers and it must be reformed,” Giordano wrote. “Without visa reform, rural economies will suffer and food prices will increase, jeopardizing the U.S. pork industry’s role as the global low-cost pork producer.”
Read the entire "Meat of the Matter."
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