Upcoming Chicago Fed conference: Labor Issues Facing Agriculture and the Rural Midwest

On November 17, 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Upjohn Institute will hold a conference to explore labor issues affecting agriculture and the rural Midwest. The conference will be preceded on November 16, 2015, by the performance of a play that deals with immigrant experiences in agriculture, followed by a policy discussion. Visit www.chicagofed.org/events/2015/annual-agricultural-conference for more details and to register. Feel free to contact David Oppedahl at 312-322-6122 with any questions about these events.

Concerns about population losses, work force vitality, employment skills, health issues, and economic growth that lags that of urban areas have persisted for years in the rural Midwest and throughout the U.S. This has led to much discussion of a rural/urban divide in the nation (see an example from Governing).

Manufacturers often complain that a skills gap prevents them from expanding and hiring additional workers. Agricultural businesses also face challenges to meet their labor needs, and sometimes rely on immigrant workers. There are implications for rural areas not only due to a shortage of U.S. workers, but also to matters related to worker compensation (see, for instance, a recent Department of Labor ruling). Moreover, non-farm employment can be vital for the livelihood of many agricultural families, even as farm employment remains a key component of rural income in the Midwest. In addition, health insurance coverage continues to be a critical factor for farm households and rural workers.

At the upcoming conference, experts from academia, industry, and policy institutions will discuss work force trends, labor challenges, and ways to improve living standards in the rural Midwest. The goals of the conference include understanding key issues related to rural and farm labor; describing the effects of labor challenges in rural areas; examining policies that affect rural and farm jobs; and discussing possible strategies to position the midwestern economy and agriculture for a prosperous future.

In the final panel discussion of the day, moderator Bill Testa will provide an overview of trends in skilled worker location. As skilled workers, especially younger workers, gravitate toward large metropolitan areas and their central cities, smaller metropolitan areas, towns, and rural areas increasingly struggle to develop, attract, and retain the skilled work force they need for existing and new businesses and investment. And from an individual worker’s perspective, the choice to work outside of a large labor market area may result in a narrower set of career and skills acquisition opportunities, as well as a loss of wage income. The panelists will address: (1) how communities can best address these challenges; and (2) how workers can choose a smaller town or rural location without unduly sacrificing career opportunities and high wages.