Immigration isn't just a national issue. As The Journal Gazette's Ron Shawgo reported Monday, an analysis by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows how much immigration already affects the Midwest in general and Indiana and Fort Wayne in particular.
The council, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to engage business in solving current issues, contends that an influx of a million immigrants has helped the Midwest remain competitive with other parts of the country during a time of lagging growth. Some cities, including Terre Haute and South Bend, would actually have lost population during that period were it not for foreign-born newcomers.
Of the 26,000 people who moved to Allen County from 2000 to 2010, more than one in four was foreign-born, according to the report. Looked at another way, the native-born population in the county went up roughly 10 percent, but the foreign-born population increased by 51 percent.
“In a region suffering from population slowdown, slow growth and aging, nothing compares to immigration in helping to maintain the vitality of metro areas that are home to millions of residents,” the Chicago Council contends in its report.
That argument dovetails nicely with other statistics that suggest that immigration reform would be a boost to the economy through new taxes, businesses and jobs that would be created. In fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is among the business-oriented organizations that have called for passage of a reform package.
Mark Becker, CEO of Greater Fort Wayne, read of the Chicago Council's study with interest. His organization is planning to look at including a position on the national immigration issue as part of its legislative agenda for next year. He said he wanted to know more about whether immigrants could fill urgent job needs this area will be facing in the next few years.
Just last week, Northeast Indiana Works reported that a fifth of northeast Indiana's adult workforce “is at or nearing retirement age.”
Though lean management may mean that some of the jobs those baby boomers leave are never filled, there's still a looming crisis.
“Many employers on the manufacturing side are having a difficult time finding skilled workers,” said Rick Farrant, NIW's director of communications. “Employers are increasingly in need of skilled workers.”
Could immigrants, with new paths to citizenship, fill some of those needs? Farrant doesn't have the data at hand to say at this point. But there are opportunities for training for specialized work.
“Manufacturers are increasingly looking for workers who have certificates – CNC operators, welders and industrial maintenance technicians,” Farrant said.
And training for that kind of work is available through the Anthis Career Center and various private training centers.
There are also, Farrant said, “great demands for soft skills. People who are responsible, accountable, show up for work on time and can function in a team environment – what some people call the 'work ethic.' ”
Rob Paral, a consultant who wrote the Chicago Council's report, believes that assessments of immigration's effects here need not be viewed just as a question of filling higher-paid, higher-skilled positions.
“The American economy creates a lot of low-skilled jobs,” he said, in the restaurant, hotel and retail areas, for instance. “You provide workers to some extent for these jobs through immigration.”
Immigration reform, he said, could create “an engaged population, a population that's not afraid of the police. They tend to be strivers. They want to do well and save some money and buy a house,” Paral said. “You want people to go to Home Depot and buy the rake.”
Paral hopes the Chicago Council's research will spark awareness of the immigration issue by bringing the numbers down to a local level.
“There's been very little information available for an area like Fort Wayne,” Paral said.
Two reports, two needs that local and national leaders need to address. If reform can get through Congress, increasing numbers from immigration, far from hurting the area, can help Fort Wayne grow economically and perhaps fill jobs that soon will be in urgent need of filling.