Immigrants can help fix our labor shortage

Dec. 15, 2021
The U.S. Census Bureau says immigration will become the primary driver of U.S. population growth by 2030, and companies should tap into this rich source of labor.

Read more on the labor crunch:

By Ron Shinn

The labor shortage is either a serious problem or already a crisis, depending on how it is impacting your business today.

Postponing plant expansions and purchases of new processing equipment, missing shipping deadlines and turning down new business are all results of the labor shortage I have heard plastics processors describe when talking about their struggle to hire new workers.

The print issue of Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing includes six stories by Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna about how the plastics industry is coping with the lack of workers. Additional stories are online-only; find links to the entire series at They are worth a look.

There have been items in the national media about looking to non-traditional sources for workers. People who have been previously incarcerated has been a favorite story line and is no doubt worth considering.

My suggestion is to also look closely at the immigrant community, especially the newly arrived immigrants coming in since President Joe Biden started relaxing the immigration restrictions imposed by the previous administration. This includes refugees from Afghanistan who are now making their way to new U.S. homes.

In an average year, about 1 million legal immigrants come into the country and about 750,000 of them go into the workforce. In 2020, only about 263,000 entered, but that number is rising this year.

According to census data, immigrants already make up about 17 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Some 19 percent — about one in five workers — in manufacturing jobs are foreign-born.

Here’s another way to assess the value of hiring immigrants today: Baby boomers are leaving the U.S. workforce, and there are not enough U.S.-born workers to take their place. The U.S. Census Bureau says population projections show immigration will become the primary driver of U.S. population growth by 2030, mostly because of a rising number of deaths and lower birth rates in the U.S.-born population.

Many communities have nonprofit or church-related refugee resettlement groups that can be a great source for finding manufacturing job candidates. In addition to helping immigrants find shelter and other support services, these agencies specialize in helping them get legal work permits and other documents needed for jobs.

How do you tap into the immigrant community? Employers just need to make contact and open a channel from these refugee organizations to their company. The only other requirement is to keep an open mind about hiring employees who are new to this country and might have only a rudimentary knowledge of English.

Immigrants with no prior plastics processing plant experience can certainly be trained for most plant-floor jobs, but don’t overlook them when considering skilled positions.

Innovation is going to be a key ingredient in companies that prosper in the future. Innovation includes staffing and training workers as much as it means buying the newest and most sophisticated processing machine.

Timothy Duffy, president of the Cleveland Industrial Training Center (CITC), which trains CNC operators at facilities in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, said immigrants often come to the program who are mechanically inclined but might not necessarily have CNC experience. Language issues show up on CITC’s entrance test, but there is rarely a difference afterwards between U.S.- born and non-U.S.-born students.

“On the plant floor, I don’t think it is a problem,” Duffy said. He has trained and placed an estimated 2,000 students in the past 15 years.

“If our entrance test indicates a student is having language issues, there are government agencies that can help,” he said.

Duffy said CITC trains CNC operators who previously worked in retail, or as roofers, landscapers and auto mechanics. There are also plenty who have been doing grunt work in manufacturing who want a higher-paying position. Being U.S.-born is not a requirement for success, he said.

“I get three calls a week from employers looking to hire one of our students,” he said. “I have about 25 openings to fill right now.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says more visas and green cards need to be authorized to help fill U.S. skilled-job openings.

I have visited many processing plants during my 30-plus-year career writing about plastics, and I don’t ever recall a plant manager or supervisor complaining about the poor work performance of a non-U.S.-born worker. I have heard comments about reluctance to hire immigrants because of the perception that they would take away jobs from Americans, lack manufacturing experience, have poor language skills or similar issues.

But those are surmountable barriers, and the time has come to find innovative ways to get past those issues.

Ron Shinn, editor 

[email protected]

About the Author

Ron Shinn | Editor

Editor Ron Shinn is a co-founder of Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing and has been covering the plastics industry for more than 35 years. He leads the editorial team, directs coverage and sets the editorial calendar. He also writes features, including the Talking Points column and On the Factory Floor, and covers recycling and sustainability for PMM and Plastics Recycling.