Do you remember your first job? At 16 years old, I worked as a dishwasher at McDonald’s in Denver, Colorado. New to the United States, I could barely speak English. In the job interview, the friendly McDonald’s manager, who was an immigrant from Ethiopia herself, asked me, “What do you expect to earn?”
My only response was, “A lot of money!”
I was eager to work to help my family. The manager had previously hired my three older brothers, so she hired me to scrub floors and clean aprons.
From 2019 to 2022, I served as deputy commissioner for workforce development for the State of Minnesota, a leadership position I took to help build an economy that works for everyone. At the time, our state faced record low unemployment and record high job vacancies. Sound familiar?
Today’s labor shortage is rooted in the same demographic challenge: Baby Boomers are exiting the workforce at a far greater rate than new workers are entering it. From 2017 to 2030, as many as 20 people will leave the workforce for every one person entering it, according to Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.
At the same time, the opportunity gaps that exist between whites and communities of color are worsening in many parts of the United States, leading to significantly different outcomes in employment, housing, health, and education. The disparate impact of the COVID pandemic only highlighted and worsened these gaps.
I see an opportunity to empower and engage a more diverse United States in creating a stronger economy and more inclusive culture.
My work during the pandemic was to make sure recovery efforts were inclusive of displaced workers of color and small business owners. We made sure that when $60 million in small business grants were approved by the state legislature, they included designated funding for businesses owned by people of color, women, and veterans.
We developed an online learning platform in partnership with Coursera so that Minnesotans could take free virtual training courses for in-demand jobs. There is still work to do to eliminate racial disparities in employment and to create a level playing field, but we are headed in the right direction. At the state and federal level, we are advancing the ideals of equity and economic growth.
When President Joe Biden signed the Chips and Science Act last month, investing $52 billion in developing domestic semiconductor and tech manufacturing to promote the economy and national security, he said, “Today is a day for builders. Today America is delivering.”
This once-in-a-generation investment, along with the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, will strengthen our economy and address the climate change crisis.
But both pieces of legislation require a new workforce, including a high-tech and high-skilled workforce. As deputy commissioner for workforce, I would regularly remind business leaders and policymakers that the development of a productive workforce is linked to how successfully our communities welcome immigrants.
I was welcomed into the United States economy by an Ethiopian immigrant who hired and trained me and my brothers at McDonald’s, and this humble first job helped launch us into successful careers.
There are many things that can be done to welcome immigrants into our economy.
Hire immigrants! In my businesses and nonprofits, hiring and training new employees is deeply meaningful. It is a great privilege to see the possibility in someone and to invite them to invest their talents in my work. My personal and professional network is filled with immigrants, and so of course, I have hired new immigrants. There can be a greater responsibility in welcoming and training someone new to this country, but I know this investment is essential to building our economy.
It’s important to advocate for government policies that welcome immigrants. Ten years ago, President Barack Obama issued the executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy for people who were born in other countries but brought to the United States as children without legal paperwork. DACA allowed some young people who previously could not legally work in this country to access the workforce.
DACA was a temporary solution in response to a broader need for just and equitable immigration laws. I celebrate the Biden-Harris administration for continuing DACA, but welcoming immigrants into the workforce requires more: Support a road map to citizenship for the nearly 11 million people who have been living in and strengthening our country for years, support pathways for asylum seekers and refugees to come to the United States, and support reforms to the visa system that incentivizes recruiting high-skilled, immigrant workers already in the United States. for in-demand occupations.
Support labor rights for workers. I admire the union organizers who welcome new immigrants, educate them about their rights as workers, and invite them to build power collectively with their coworkers.
Monday, September 5, is Labor Day, a federal holiday that recognizes the American union movement and the many ways workers contribute to the U.S. economy. The day typically includes picnics, parades, and a celebration of historic labor victories–minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, and the 40-hour work week. For the future health of our economy, we must also celebrate welcoming immigrant workers.
Note: The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government.