The obvious solution to South Dakota's vo-tech workforce shortage is higher wages. But if our business and political leaders are committed to ignoring that option, perhaps we can consider another solution: immigrants.

The Pew Charitable Trusts just issued a report on "Changing Patterns in U.S. Immigration and Population." It includes this map of counties where the population of U.S.-born residents has declined over the last couple decades:

Native-Born Population Declines in Middle America, 1990-2012. Source: Pew Charitable Trusts, "Changing Patterns in U.S. Immigration and Population," 2014.12.18

(click to embiggen!)

See that big blue band down the middle of the country? Those are counties where there are fewer natives born Americans. More of East River is emptying out than West River.

A lot of counties in that band of demographic blues are countering that population loss with immigrants:

"Immigration Slows Population Declines in Middle America"—Source: Pew Charitable Trusts, "Changing Patterns in U.S. Immigration and Population," 2014.12.18

(click to embiggen!)

The dark green counties saw foreign immigration growth outpace the native population loss. The lighter green counties saw foreign immigration slow their shrinkage. Notice that green starts to peter out around the Dakotas.

South Dakotans, like all Americans, are getting older and having fewer babies. The Pew report says immigration is key to filling the workforce:

In addition to having the potential to offset population decline in some areas of the country, immigrants can also compensate for the aging of the native-born population. The median age of the total U.S. population is rising, and the ratio of seniors (ages 65+) to working age people (ages 25-64) is increasing. Immigration mitigates these trends by adding working age adults to the U.S. population. Nearly half of immigrants admitted between 2003 and 2012 were between the ages of 20 and 40, while only 5 percent were ages 65 or older.

The size and makeup of the U.S. population has important implications for economic productivity, taxation, and spending. Immigrants are already disproportionately represented in the labor force with a share of about 16 percent, while they make up about 13 percent of the overall population. The Pew Research Center has determined that if current immigration trends and birth rates continue, by 2050 virtually all (93 percent) of the nation’s working age population growth will come from immigrants and their U.S.-born children [Pew Charitable Trusts, "Changing Patterns in U.S. Immigration and Population: Immigrants Slow Population Decline in Many Counties," December 2014].

South Dakota has shown its willingness to use immigration as an economic development tool in the past. The state appears to recognize at least part of the immigration–economics equation in its new Build Dakota vo-tech scholarship program:

But with high school graduation classes declining, South Dakota also must lure more people here from other states. Build Dakota understands that, its designers say. Out-of-staters entering one of South Dakota’s four technical schools will be able to apply for full scholarships, too, as long as they commit to working at least three years in the state after they graduate [Steve Young, "Build Dakota Offers Promise for Workforce Growth," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.12.19].

But notice the limits there: we're thinking about students from other states, not workers from other countries. We're targeting youth who will in a couple years turn into technicians who will work for three years with entry-level skills at entry-level wages. Where's the component of our economic development plan that targets experienced workers, foreign and domestic, who could come to South Dakota and add value right now with better skills and bigger families?

Our workforce shortage is not magic. South Dakota has more retirees, fewer workers, and fewer kids stepping in to replace them. Our workforce recruitment efforts need to do more to ride the immigration wave that is boosting other parts of Middle America.