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The scourged and the sought

9/23/2015

Tyson Fresh Meats’ decision to permanently cease beef-packing operations at its Denison plant in August jettisoned some 400 workers, many of them Latino immigrants with varying degrees of language proficiency and connections to Iowa.

Within hours, Evan Blakley, executive director of the Chamber & Development Council of Crawford County, started fielding phone calls.

“Can we get these workers?” said recruiters from around Iowa.

“We’ll take them all!” said out-of-state human resource directors.

Days later in Denison, at least 213 job-seekers from the former Tyson plant made their way through a table-packed event center alive with chatter on wages and benefits and opportunity, said Ed Wallace, deputy director of Iowa Workforce Development. Businesses from across the Midwest attended this job fair at the National Guard Armory on the east side of Denison.

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Delivering their elevator pitches with first-day-on-the-job alacrity, the recruiters — who often spoke through English-to-Spanish translators — were as eager to get Hispanics into their businesses as Donald Trump is to get them rounded up and sent back South.

If you heard someone say, “Papers please,” at the job fair, it was to get a contract signed for a Latino to start work right now. Not at slave wages, either. Tyson was paying $13.65 to $20.05 an hour.

The largest, single issue in rural Iowa today is lack of available labor. Nothing approaches it.

It’s threatening the sustainability of foundational businesses in rural reaches across the Hawkeye State. I serve on three economic development boards — the Midwest Partnership (Adair, Audubon, Greene and Guthrie counties), the Carroll Area Development Corporation and the Greene County Development Corporation — and what we hear consistently from employers is that they can’t find enough qualified people.

Our classified ad sections in the Carroll and Jefferson newspapers are jammed with job openings. I think businesses in the City of Carroll alone could hire another 500 to 1,000 people today if the labor were on the ready — and several local human resources directors agree with the assessment.

In an interview with Cityview, Gov. Terry Branstad said he’s concerned that employees from the shuttered Tyson beef facility will jump to other Midwestern states.

“We want them to stay,” Branstad said.

He added, “There are a lot of immigrants that have been here, and a lot of them are second generation.”

Meanwhile, back on the GOP presidential circuit, immigrant bashing is the surest ticket to center-stage FOX and CNN debate positioning, and rising poll numbers in Iowa.

This represents one of the greatest disconnects I’ve seen in my career between the reality of economic life on the ground in rural Iowa and the seemingly winning stumping from Republican White House candidates.

Branstad doesn’t disagree.

“I can’t control the rhetoric of the presidential candidates, but I would just encourage them to go out in rural Iowa and see firsthand what’s going on,” Branstad said, noting that he wants to see legal immigration and the newly arrived learning English. (One does, however, get the distinct impression that Branstad is on the verge of joining Jeb Bush and others in his party in calling for more reasoned, less racist approaches to immigration.)

Bottom line: Too many rural Iowans clutch this fantasy notion that we can re-stock the labor pool with white graduates from our high schools, 30-somethings who left for Kansas City or Minneapolis, but will go all Prodigal Son on us, once they read our slick (but cloying, desperate-sounding) appeals in high school alumni newsletters.

The governor, for his part, deserves credit for the House Base Iowa initiative, which connected some 1,400 former military men and women with jobs in Iowa. High Schools like Waukee and higher-learning institutions such as Des Moines Area Community College, are on the cutting edge with internship programs linking students with Iowa jobs.

But it won’t be enough. Not by a long shot.

Iowa towns can buy the Trump fix, give the thumbs-down to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and watch businesses leave.

It’s long since time for a Hola, Iowa! moment.

We can die white.

Or we can change. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

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