Recent Op-Eds

Help Wanted

By Sen. John Thune

August 27, 2021

This summer, as I’ve visited small and big towns across South Dakota, there have been a lot of issues on the top of people’s minds – from Afghanistan to border security to keeping our communities safe. As I visited local businesses, though, one issue stood out above all else: worker shortages. No one can seem to find enough workers to meet the growing demand as our economy continues to get stronger. In some cases, unfortunately, the inability to find workers has led to reduced capacity or hours of operation. Fewer employees means fewer people to serve customers. 

These worker shortages are not just an illusion. At the end of June, job openings in the United States had reached 10.1 million – a record high. The national employment rate currently stands at 5.2 percent. In South Dakota, our unemployment rate is even lower. This low rate, which means the available workforce is small, paired with our booming economy in South Dakota, which means consumer demand is high, has created the workforce shortages that South Dakotans are seeing and feeling. 

To be clear, an expanding economy and near record-low unemployment are good things. They are positive signs of a strong economy. That said, they are not without their challenges, which is why it is so important to keep our eye on the ball and implement positive solutions so these resulting workforce shortages don’t stunt economic growth. I support allowing free market forces to adapt and address these shortages over heavy-handed government intervention, but we can implement common-sense changes to help specific areas that have been hit particularly hard. That’s why I’ve made expanding the H-2B visa program a priority. Many South Dakota businesses rely on workers who temporarily come to the United States through this program. South Dakota businesses in industries from tourism and hospitality to construction and forestry have benefitted tremendously from it.

A low unemployment rate like we have now means a high number of South Dakotans who want to work have jobs, but it can present challenges for states like ours that rely on a seasonal, supplemental workforce. The H-2B visa program gives our businesses an additional employment pool to pull from when there is a high seasonal demand. I’ve introduced multiple bills that would help raise the cap on this program. My Prioritizing Help to Businesses Act would set aside up to 2,500 H-2B visas for states like South Dakota that are at or below 3.5 percent unemployment with a capped increase of 25 percent over the previous year’s H-2B total. It’s a new approach that I hope will be considered as we evaluate ways to improve the worker shortage in South Dakota’s seasonal industries.

Another industry that has struggled to find workers, even before the current shortage, is telecommunications. South Dakota is helping to lead the way in these technological advancements. As we work to deploy 5G technology and provide more of rural South Dakota with a reliable internet connection, we cannot afford a lack of qualified workers to hold us back. My Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act, which recently passed the Senate, would help address the shortage of trained workers who will be necessary to fill next-generation jobs in the telecommunications industry.

These bills are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the workforce shortages in our state. There is certainly more work to be done, and I will continue to look for light-touch ways to help South Dakota businesses find workers. All things considered, I would rather see “help wanted” signs posted in shop windows than long lines at the unemployment office. A low unemployment rate means that more South Dakotans have a steady paycheck to support themselves and their families. But we cannot ignore these workforce shortages. I am focused on continuing to develop solutions in Washington to address the side effects of low unemployment so our economy can continue to grow and create more opportunities for South Dakotans.