Matt Kilian is president of the chamber of commerce in Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota, a popular tourist destination known for its lakeside resorts and family getaways. “Ask anyone in the region what the quintessential vacation destination is, and it’s the Brainerd Lakes area,” he says. “I’d guess that two-thirds of all economic activity in this area is related to tourism in some fashion.” And that industry has depended on migrant labor for the greater part of a decade. “Depending on the resort, anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent of their seasonal workforce is from the H-2B visa work program.”
It’s a code-red crisis not just for hospitality, but for any business.
The reliance on the H-2B visa program, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign guest workers for temporary, nonagricultural jobs, is only growing as Minnesota’s tourism industry booms. But Kilian says there aren’t enough visas to supply the area with the workforce it truly needs. The federal government issues only 66,000 of the visas per fiscal year, and that’s for employers in a range of non-farm industries across the country. “The government has to expand the cap on the program and let us hire more people,” Kilian says. “This state and this community has as much of a workforce shortage as any in the country. In the second quarter of last year, we had 2,625 vacant job openings, the highest since the state of Minnesota started tracking those numbers. It’s a code-red crisis not just for hospitality, but for any business.”
The shortage of American workers interested in the seasonal, and often remote, jobs has left resort owners little choice but to rely on foreign labor. And the visa process required to obtain that foreign labor can be costly and time-consuming. “Would business owners rather hire American workers? No question. They have to pay a lot of money and go through a lot of paperwork and hassle to bring immigrants here each season,” Kilian says. “This isn’t a ‘buy American’ issue, this is about keeping our doors open.”
Kilian says the foreign-born workers have served as a stopgap to the workforce shortage in Minnesota, and the workers have been embraced by the community. “There are some workers who have been coming here for more than a decade in the summer season, and they’re part of the culture of the resort,” he says. “Guests look forward to seeing them summer after summer.”
To keep business booming, Kilian would like to see an expansion of the seasonal worker program. “We have to pay attention to pathways to immigration that are safe and secure and legal,” he says, “but we need to make it easier for our businesses to meet their needs. The solution is either immigration or automation — and you can’t automate hospitality.”