The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently issued an insightful report that covers a range of economic issues, with a special emphasis on agriculture. Among its findings: employment will grow from 145 million in 2012 to 161 million in 2022, with a third of the growth in the health care and social assistance industries. Non-farm wage and salary employment is projected to grow from 134 million to 150 million.
U.S. workers’ median age, which was 37 in 1992 and 40 in 2002, may reach 43 in 2022 when a quarter of workers are expected to be 55 or older. Alarmingly, however, nine of the 10 fastest-growing occupations are near the low end of the wage spectrum. Examples include personal care aides, retail salespersons, home health aides and the service industry in general. The exception is registered nurses whose average annual 2010 earnings were $65,000.
As for salaried and wage-earning farm workers (that is, exclusive of non-paid workers on family farms), their total will fall by 25,000. Labor-saving mechanization in fruits, vegetables and nurseries has been slowed by an overage of farm workers since 1980. The recent modest decline in Mexico-U.S. migration that started in 2008 has helped increase farm wages which, coupled with the falling cost of implementing robotics, has encouraged growers to consider mechanization as a permanent harvesting method.
While mechanical harvesting is relatively easy for some crops like almonds and pecans, other more delicate fruits are difficult. Because of uneven ripening, apples and pears, among other fruits, may need special handling.
However, in response to growers’ threats that they would move their farms to Mexico unless they could get more guest workers, scientists developed a tomato that ripened uniformly, and engineers produced a machine that cut the plant, shook off the ripe tomatoes, and conveyed them to trucks that could deliver up to 25 tons to processors. As a result, California today produces five times more processing tomatoes at a fraction of the early 1960s cost, and with fewer but better paid workers.
Even modest levels of mechanization could have the desirable side effect of making it more difficult for Congress to pass an ag worker bill. Although the House Judiciary Committee passed the Agricultural Guest Worker Act in June, the bill has stalled due to internal disputes about permanent residency and eventual citizenship.
In conclusion, the BLS report has a mix of encouraging and discouraging news: the labor force will increase only slightly; its composition will age significantly. On the horizon for the next decade are many more low-paying jobs than ones that pay a decent salary.
On the other hand, successful mechanization with the tomato crop proves that mechanizing can be done, assuming the growers have the will to invest the necessary time and money. Instead, it seems most of the ag industry is intent on continuing to lobby Congress to pass legislation that would increase the numbers of field workers and depress the wages of existing farm workers.
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