Since the city of Owensboro, Kentucky, began helping immigrants and refugees secure employment and affordable housing, something has happened: the local economy has grown 6 percent and unemployment has dropped to one of the lowest rates in the state. “A lot of these folks are entrepreneurs at heart,” says Joe Berry, the executive vice president for entrepreneurship at the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation (GO-EDC).
Working with both the foreign-born and the U.S.-born population, the GO-EDC and its sister team, the Kentucky Innovation Network, have done an extraordinary amount for the local economy. Over the last 10 years, they have helped establish 73 new companies, which combined now generate more than $109 million in annual revenue and provide 346 new jobs. “If you look at the data on a three-year average, every $1 that goes into our organization translates into $322 invested into our local economy,” Berry says. “We like to think we’re a pretty good investment.”
We need to be as open as we can in terms of attracting qualified, hardworking people to our region, which includes making sure that our immigrant population has the resources and support they need.
And yet there’s one thing Owensboro still needs: labor. Despite being the fourth largest city in the state, Owensboro is still relatively isolated. While home to a handful of small colleges, there are no full-fledged research institutions, as is the case in nearby Bowling Green and Louisville, which can make it difficult to attract new businesses and college graduates. “When we have structural disadvantages, it’s important for us to be as innovative as we can,” says Berry. “The companies we’re meeting with, the first need that they have is workforce. So we need to be as open as we can in terms of attracting qualified, hardworking people to our region, which includes making sure that our immigrant population has the resources and support they need.”
Berry says that while immigrants are needed right now, they are also key to future economic growth. “If you look at the data, immigrants are oftentimes more likely to be business owners,” says Berry. He’s right: Nationally, immigrants are 28 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than are native-born Americans, and in his congressional district, in central Kentucky, immigrants are almost 7 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs. “Their kids are going to college. The level of social mobility is significant. The whole idea of the American Dream gets tossed around, but a lot of folks in the immigrant population are testaments to that concept of making a better life for yourself and your family. They work hard, which is exactly the kind of workforce that employers want.”
Of course, there have been challenges in trying to help the foreign-born community integrate. The language barrier is one. While the school system offers ESL (English as a Second Language) classes for students, adults don’t always have access to the same kind of resources. Berry knows one man who was trained at Le Cordon Bleu as a chef but who works in a poultry factory, because his English isn’t strong enough for other employment. Foreign education and training credentials are also sometimes not transferrable to the United States. “The conversations that we tend to have with businesses is that they want to hire people tomorrow,” he says. “And while a lot of the people immigrating to the United States have the skills necessary to do those jobs, their degree might not necessarily equate here.”
The failure of the government to address these problems has led to a lot of untapped talent — people who would otherwise be contributing more to the economy. One study found that an estimated 1.9 million high-skilled immigrants are underemployed, leading to an annual loss of $39.4 billion in earnings and $10.2 billion in tax payments. “The system as it exists right now is untenable,” says Berry. “You have one side that wants to secure the border, another that wants a pathway to citizenship. I’m not convinced those two ideas can be reconciled given the state of our current politics, which is why having good data to show the economic impact is important. The language that everyone speaks on both sides of the aisles is economics and jobs. Those are the things that impact our community and our neighbors. And, at the end of the day, we’re talking about people and families and communities, so we have to figure out this challenge.”