Unions, businesses eye migrants to fill labor gaps in Ohio

By Kristina Cooke and Howard Schneider

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) – On a noisy factory floor in Columbus, Ohio, trade union apprentice Jorge Herrera moved quickly as he assembled ventilation ducts to be used in the construction of a large car manufacturing plant on the outskirts of the city.

The 27-year-old asylum seeker from Nicaragua, who had welding experience back in his home country, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border two years ago. He struggled with unstable jobs before he was hired by the sheet metal workers’ union this year despite speaking little English, passing his entry test with the help of a translation app.

He works alongside Sofia Mattern Mondragon, a 22-year-old Mexican-American worker who grew up in the United States. She’s the only other Spanish speaker on the floor, but said she sometimes struggles to translate the more technical metal work terms.

A few machines over, Tim Lyman, 60, said over the hammering of duct parts and the screech of metal saws, that while communication can be tricky, “if they want to learn, I’ll teach them.”

The arrival of record numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has posed a political problem for U.S. President Joe Biden as he seeks reelection in November, up against former President Donald Trump, who has made cracking down on immigration a top issue in his campaign.

A White House spokesperson said the Biden administration has called on Congress to pass bipartisan immigration reform legislation that has been stymied by Republicans. It has also sped up processing work permits and created new legal pathways through which hundreds of thousands of migrants were immediately eligible to apply for permits.

A Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt slammed these efforts as taking jobs from Americans.

But in Columbus, local union workers have welcomed the extra hands from migrants and refugees with work permits, union officials say, amid construction labor shortages.

Help accessing immigrant communities to find workers to hire has been among the top three requests the Columbus Chamber of Commerce has fielded from local businesses in recent years, said Kelly Fuller, the chamber’s vice president of talent and workforce development.

Nationwide, the increase in the number of available workers from 2021 to 2023 was the fastest two-year jump this century, with roughly half the growth coming from people born elsewhere, and U.S. Federal Reserve staff recently raised their economic growth estimates to account for higher immigration.

A number of European countries, such as Spain, are also experiencing boosts to their economies fueled by migrant labor.

In the U.S., the expansion of the labor force has kept the economy growing and consumer spending up without driving inflation even higher, said Brookings Institution economist Tara Watson.

Immigration is bolstering a U.S. workforce that would otherwise be set to decline as the baby boomer generation retires, she added. And especially in some fields, we have long-run structural needs that Americans are just not going to fill,” Watson said, pointing to a lack of home health aides and other direct care workers.


Around Columbus, large construction projects abound, including for Intel chip factories that President Joe Biden called “literally a field of dreams” in his 2023 State of the Union address. Columbus is among the fastest growing cities in the United States, with factories and warehouses dotting its perimeter.

But with a shortage of skilled labor, unions are discussing how to reach and retain people like Herrera, including by partnering bilingual workers with new hires. Unions have distributed flyers about their apprenticeship programs in Spanish and other languages, said Dorsey Hager, a union official who sits on the Columbus/Central Ohio Building & Construction Trades Council.

Herrera found out about the opportunity after he stopped by the factory and asked if they had work.

First-year sheet metal apprentices earn $20.58 an hour plus benefits, according to a union flyer. The wage upon completion of the four year apprenticeship is around $36 an hour.

“It’s something good for the long term,” Herrera said.

He regularly sends money back to Nicaragua, where his wife and two children still live. He left because of political violence, he said, and hopes to bring his family to the United States should he win asylum.

Columbus is becoming an increasingly popular destination for migrants. More than 9,000 immigrants had a Columbus address in new immigration court proceedings in fiscal year 2023, a 350 percent increase from fiscal year 2019, according to immigration court data made available by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Overall in Ohio since the start of the 2024 fiscal year, the Biden administration has issued around 16,300 work permits to asylum applicants and certain people who received humanitarian parole, including under the new legal pathways, a Department of Homeland Security official said. Around 3,700 more permits were granted to applicants for Temporary Protected Status.


In Central Ohio, advocates Claudia Cortez-Reinhardt and Isbel Alvarado have helped unions connect with dozens of immigrant workers. At town halls, Cortez-Reinhardt said, workers get excited when they hear about the opportunity of a secure income along with education and health benefits.

Even with work permits, many new immigrants face barriers such as language and transportation in the car-dependent city of Columbus.

One of the sheet metal apprentices they helped, Ronal Pinto, 45, used to work as a mechanical engineer in an aluminum foil factory in Venezuela.

He fled his home country for Chile, he said, but after four years he and his wife decided to head to the U.S. to ask for asylum there.

They settled in Columbus, where he had friends from Venezuela who had arrived earlier. The first two years were difficult, he said, with a string of temporary, low-paid jobs. Now, he feels like he has made it.

He lives with his wife, their toddler, his parents-in-law and sister-in-law in a small house, a 45-minute drive from the construction site where he works.

On Saturdays, Pinto attends English classes at a nearby college. He is far from fluent, he said, but is working hard to improve. A few of his coworkers are trying to learn some Spanish to communicate with him, too, he said.

Around the city, he has noticed more Venezuelans and he is happy to be able to extend a helping hand to newer arrivals, including letting them know about the apprenticeship programs.

“We help each other. At least us Venezuelans, we have always been this way,” Pinto said.

(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in Columbus Ohio and Howard Schneider in Washington, D.C., additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Mary Milliken and Aurora Ellis)

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