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Rapid City CEO says improving visa process could help SD's workforce shortage

Todd Kenner, CEO of RESPEC
Arielle Zionts
/
SDPB
Todd Kenner, CEO of RESPEC

The CEO of an engineering company says improving the visa process for highly skilled foreign workers could help address South Dakota's worker shortage.

"The H1-B visa is just, it's painful," Todd Kenner told Rep. Dusty Johnson during a meeting at the company's Rapid City office on Tuesday. "It's expensive. We spend about $20,000 to $25,000 a candidate and it takes forever."

All worker visa programs are "an absolute failure," Johnson said. "I mean it is too easy to get to this country illegally and too hard to get here legally."

Kenner is CEO of RESPEC, a company that focuses on engineering, geoscience, data and technology solutions. RESPEC is headquartered in Rapid City and has offices in 16 states and Canadian provinces.

The H1-B visa is for foreign workers who have specialized skills and a bachelor's degree. American companies can hire the visa holders if the companies are struggling to find workers within the U.S. workforce.

RESPEC has about 500 employees and is seeking about 60 new workers. That's a 12% vacancy rate.

The company is not alone in its struggle.

South Dakota has about 47,000 job openings but only about 12,800 people seeking jobs. The state also has the second-highest labor force participation rate in the country. That's the percentage of people 16 years or older that are working or actively looking for work.

Kenner said he doesn't see the country's workforce problem getting better anytime soon, especially with the declining birth rate.

"The reality is there's much more jobs that are available than people to fill," he said. "There's far more demand than there is a supply."

Kenner said the visa application process — which can take up to 2.5 years — is frustrating for interested workers. He said it's also making business owners question whether it's worth applying.

Kenner said the visa processing time slowed down about five years ago and the longer it takes, the more companies have to pay attorneys working on the applications.

The Rapid City RESPEC office hires many people from South Dakota Mines — Kenner's alma matter — but has also found successful H1-B workers from China, India, Mongolia, Poland and other countries.

Kenner said many visa holders eventually try to obtain residency and citizenship.

Johnson, a Republican, welcomes these workers and possible future citizens.

"You're talking about people who have skills needed in the American workplace. I mean having them here will help Americans grow American companies," he said.

Johnson pointed to studies that show most immigrants follow the law and contribute to the economy — sometimes more than people born in the U.S.

"I mean just about any way that you could measure what is the American Dream, they do better than my children would be expected to do by the data," Johnson said.

Bringing in more foreign workers will not solve the workforce crisis alone, Kenner said.

He said South Dakota companies should continue to recruit from state colleges, but the state also needs to do a better job preparing STEM majors.

Freshmen who need to take remedial math and science classes probably won't be able to finish their degree within four years, Kenner said. And many of them will drop out before spending that much time and money on an undergraduate degree.

Kenner said RESPEC is trying to address this problem through its STEM outreach to middle school students. That way, he said, students can begin considering a STEM career and know what kind of classes they need to take.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.