Iowa Ideas
Iowa Ideas

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Immigrants 'propping up' Iowa population growth

Welcoming newcomers could solve Iowa's brain drain, one speaker says

Sep 22, 2017 at 7:20 pm
    Liesl Eathington Iowa State economics scientist

    CEDAR RAPIDS — Immigration accounted for more than 40 percent of the state’s population growth since 2010, and those new Iowans could provide a counter to Iowa’s brain drain, speakers at the Iowa Ideas conference said Friday.

    That 40 percent figure covers international in-migration, but the actual increase is larger when secondary immigrants — those who settled elsewhere before relocating to Iowa — are included, Iowa State University economics research scientist Liesl Eathington said.

    Immigrants “are already propping us up,” she said during a discussion of immigrations in the workplace, and immigrants’ role in Iowa’s economy will grow as baby boomers retire.

    In next 10 years, Eathington estimated, the number of likely retirees will be the equivalent of the populations of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids — nearly 350,000 people. Considering However, the number of Iowans who will reach working age during and likely enter the labor force in the next 10 years will fall short of replacing them by a number approximately equal to the population of Marion — 38,500.

    “All we are talking about is treading water,” added Lori Chesser, immigration department chairwoman at Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines. “The picture can get much worse unless we can attract people from other parts of the country.

    “So the obvious answer is international in-migration,” Eathington said, because natural population growth is unlikely to replenish the labor force.

    “Maybe we don’t have to focus on retention as much as letting people come who want to be here."

    - Lori Chesser

    Immigration department chairwoman at Davis Brown Law Firm


    Immigrants and refugees already are overrepresented in many occupations in Iowa, including math and computer jobs, production, agriculture, buildings and grounds, architecture and engineering and food service, added Peter Fisher, an economist with the Iowa Policy Project.

    Fourteen percent have advanced degrees while 32 percent have less than a high school education. That compares to 9 percent of U.S.-born Iowans holding advanced degrees and 7 percent not having completed high school.

    Immigrants are overrepresented in low-skill jobs “because that’s where they’re needed,” Chesser said. U.S.-born Iowans typically are filling the medium-skill jobs.

    Eathington noted than 60 percent of new jobs in the next 10 years probably will require no more than a high school education. However, the panelists agreed that Iowa likely will need immigrant help filling jobs at all skill levels, including high-skill positions.

    That will take a commitment from communities and employers, said Nancy Mwirotsi, founder of Pi515 who works with STEM students.

    She encouraged employers to offer English classes in the workplace, access to health care and other assistance — even things as simple as showing employees how to use email — to make workers feel welcome, increase productivity and stay.

    “We need to work with the immigrants who are here,” she said. “I don’t think they are going to leave, so how do we support them staying?”

    Iowa has become one of the top secondary immigration places “because people want to come,” Chesser said. Some are attracted by the peace and safety of Iowa communities, others are looking for the rural life they left behind.

    Due to immigration laws, it can be difficult to get those people to Iowa, she said. She encouraged people to lobby Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, C to address those policies.

    “It’s like we’re sinking, we’re dying and we’re not even reaching for a lifeline,” Chesser said.

    If Iowa can attract immigrants to fill future job openings — at all skill levels — the state may not have to fear brain drain, or the migration of young, educated native-born Iowans to other parts of the country, Chesser said.

    “Maybe we don’t have to focus on retention as much as letting people come who want to be here,” she said.

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