The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Immigration and the role of visas in the swine industry.

by Victor Ochoa, DVM, Managing Director at Swineworks

Without a doubt, the swine industry plays a crucial role in global food production, providing a significant source of protein for millions of people worldwide. However, this vital sector is facing an increasingly pressing challenge: a severe shortage of workers.

There are several factors contributing to the labor shortage crisis in the swine industry.

For instance, the nature of swine production itself requires labor-intensive tasks such as feeding, breeding, and, of course, animal health management.

Additionally, the rural locations of many swine operations add to the numerous challenges in recruiting workers, including limited access to housing, transportation, and day-to-day amenities.

Furthermore, demographic trends, including an aging workforce and declining interest among younger generations regarding agricultural careers, exacerbate the shortage of labor in the swine industry.

Meanwhile, industries such as technology, finance, and healthcare have experienced rapid growth and offer higher salaries, attracting talent away from agriculture.

It is because of all those reasons that immigrant labor—migrant workers—has played a significant role in meeting the demands of the swine industry.

However, despite the industry’s dependence on foreign workers and the fact that there are more than 70 types of visas in the US, the number of available visa options for employment in the swine industry is very limited.

For example:

  • The H-2A Visa program for the seasonal agricultural worker is designed primarily for crops rather than livestock and is often denied by immigration because of the year-round nature requirements of the swine industry.
  • H-2B Visa is not approved for agricultural jobs and is subject to annual caps, leading to intense competition among applicants.
  • J-1 Visa programs are focused on cultural exchange and do not fulfill the need for a full-time and long-term worker in the swine industry.

The Good: TN Visa Program

Because of all of the different types of negatives noted above, we have observed over the past few years that the TN Visa program has become crucial for businesses working within the swine industry to sustain it with the necessary labor force—such that it is.

While often associated with such sectors as technology and engineering, the swine industry heavily relies on TN Visa workers to manage important aspects of swine production, including breeding, feeding, healthcare, and facility management.

Unlike other visa categories, the TN Visa does not require extensive documentation or a labor certification process. Instead, applicants must demonstrate their eligibility by meeting certain criteria, including citizenship of Mexico or Canada and possessing a bachelor’s degree listed under the qualified professions list of USMCA (previously NAFTA).

Initially, we note that the TN Visas are typically issued for up to three years to individual applicants with the possibility of further renewal, which at least provides the foreign worker with the possibility of a long-term employment solution.

Of course, we should not overlook that the TN Visa holders contribute to the vibrancy and competitiveness of the North American labor and to local community economics. In this way, the program has had a profound impact on swine producers by fueling innovation, knowledge sharing, and economic growth.

graph showing tn visa issuances by month

The Bad: Challenges and Considerations

Despite its many benefits, the TN program is not without its challenges. One notable concern is the limited scope of nationality and eligible professions, which may restrict the candidate pool and opportunities for individuals in certain fields.

Also, the flexibility of the program and the high demand for workers have encouraged employees to easily switch employers, exacerbating the labor shortage in the industry.

Furthermore, over the past few months, we have seen immigration imbued with more stringent requirements, which have limited approvals for skilled positions such as veterinarians or animal scientists, affecting the industry’s ability to access the talent it needs.

Without a specific and reliable visa program, the US government leaves swine producers with no avenues to hire legal workers.

The Ugly: Turnover and Change of Employer

In specialized industries like the swine sector, the movement of skilled workers across employers is common.

However, because of historically higher rates of TN Visa refusals over the past year, hiring TN Visa holders who are currently working for a different company or farm has become a desperate strategy for swine producers to recruit talent and build a workforce.

graph showing tn visa refusal reasons

This also involves navigating specific legal and procedural challenges that can affect the employee and the employer. [ED. Note: Table on Page 28, the total number of TN Visas applied for in 2018: 21,386; 2019: 23,708; 2020: 15,209; 2021: 27,607; 2022: 37,660; 2023: 39,921. The indicated percentage of people who were denotes the percentage refused a TN Visa.]

table showing quantity of tn visa applications
Source: US Department of State - Bureau of Consular Affairs

The decision to change employers for TN Visa workers in the industry is a significant step that requires careful consideration and strategic planning. While such transitions offer benefits for both parties, they also entail legal, logistical, and practical considerations that must be addressed proactively.

There are several factors that may prompt TN Visa workers in the swine industry to consider changing employers. These motivations could be driven by career opportunities, seeking better compensation packages, dissatisfaction with current work conditions, or geographical relocation.

Implications of Employer Change

While changing employers can offer a quick solution for labor shortages, TN Visa workers and employers must carefully consider the implications of such a transition.

One primary concern is ensuring compliance with visa regulations and maintaining lawful status in the United States.

For instance, TN Visa holders cannot work for a new employer until their application is approved by US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The processing time normally exceeds the 60-day grace period that an employee has after terminating their previous job.

Delays in processing paperwork or uncertainties regarding visa renewal could temporarily impact their ability to work legally in the United States. Furthermore, with the increase in immigration fees effective April 1, 2024, changing employers will entail higher costs for swine producers.

Best Practices for Employer Change

To navigate the process of changing employers effectively, TN Visa employers should adopt several practices.

Firstly, it is important to understand why the employee is looking for a change in the first place. Employers should conduct comprehensive research on the prospective employee, assessing factors such as previous salary and benefits, growth expectations, workplace history, and opportunities for professional development. For instance, a veterinarian may choose to switch employers to relocate to a region with greater professional prospects or to align with a company that offers more competitive benefits, or perhaps they find swine production quite difficult and expect other tasks from the new company.

Additionally, TN visa workers should maintain open communication with both their current and prospective employers throughout the transition process. This includes informing their current employer of their intention to leave in a timely and professional manner, as well as communicating with the new employer to clarify visa-related requirements and expectations. Seeking legal guidance from immigration experts or attorneys specializing in TN Visa matters can provide invaluable assistance in navigating complex immigration regulations and ensuring compliance throughout the whole change of employer process.

Reducing Turnover Among Visa TN Employees

With so many challenges involved within the recruiting and immigration processes in the swine industry, it has become necessary to focus attention on keeping the employees we currently have away from other competitors.

High turnover rates among TN Visa employees can disrupt operations, increase recruitment costs, and hinder knowledge transfer.

Organizations must implement strategies to reduce turnover among this demographic.

  1. Define clear criteria: Before beginning the selection process, it is essential to establish clear criteria outlining the qualifications, skills, and attributes required for the position. Not all farm positions are the same; for instance, a sow farm crew member will need more social skills than a finisher worker, and a finisher crew member will need to have more of an independent personality than the sow farm worker.
  2. Selecting the right candidate: Selecting the right applicant for TN Visas requires careful consideration of qualifications, personality, expectations, and level of English language to ensure both the success of the applicant and the needs of the employer are met. It is crucial to prioritize individuals who have some hands-on experience on farms and are high on adaptability and problem-solving skills.
  3. graph showing placement by education

    graph showing turnover by education

  4. Offering competitive compensation and benefits: Competitive compensation packages and attractive benefits play a crucial role in retaining talent, including TN Visa employees. Employers should conduct regular market surveys to ensure that their compensation packages align with industry standards. Additionally, offering benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, and paid time off can enhance employee satisfaction and loyalty.
  5. graph showing turnover industry by average wage

  6. Understanding cultural differences: One of the main reasons for turnover among TN Visa employees is the cultural differences and adjustment challenges they face while working in a new country. Employers should offer onboarding programs to help new TN Visa employees acclimate to the workplace culture, understand American work norms, and foster a sense of belonging.
  7. Facilitating work-life balance: Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is essential for employee well-being and retention. Since TN Visa workers are foreign workers, employers can introduce more vacation days or flexible work arrangements to help TN Visa employees manage their family and personal commitments. By promoting work-life balance, organizations demonstrate their commitment to employee welfare, which can improve retention rates.
  8. Implementing modern feedback mechanisms: Being in a different country and with many not comfortable speaking the language, TN Visa workers tend to avoid conflict. It’s why providing communication channels such as online surveys and text messages enables employers to understand the concerns and challenges faced by TN Visa employees. By addressing issues proactively and demonstrating responsiveness to employee feedback, employers can enhance employee satisfaction and retention.
  9. Streamlining visa processes: Complex visa renewal processes or uncertainties regarding visa status can also contribute to turnover among TN Visa employees. Employers can streamline visa processing procedures, aid workers with visa applications, and offer legal support to navigate immigration regulations effectively. Clear communication and transparency regarding visa-related matters instill confidence and trust among TN Visa employees, reducing turnover.

Potential Solutions and Mitigation Strategies

Addressing the labor shortage crisis in the swine industry requires a multifaceted approach involving collaboration between industry stakeholders and policymakers.

Government support is crucial to addressing the labor shortage crisis in the industry. Immigration officers and lawmakers need to understand that swine production is no longer a mom-and-pop backyard production. They need to be aware that modern swine production requires skilled and professional workers to operate and maintain complex facilities and provide advanced animal care practices to comply with current animal welfare regulations.

Creating policies and visa programs that streamline immigration pathways specific to the swine industry is urgent and necessary. Potential solutions such as expanding programs similar to TN Visa to other countries and professions or even considering expanding the H-2A Visa program from a seasonal to a year-round program could aid the problem of labor shortages in the industry.

On top of that, producers and stakeholders need to invest in automation and technology solutions, such as robotic feeding systems and remote monitoring devices, to alleviate the reliance on manual labor and attract younger generations.

Furthermore, it is important to note that improving salaries and access to benefits such as affordable housing, transportation, and healthcare in rural areas can enhance the attractiveness of swine industry jobs for American workers.

Lastly, reducing turnover among TN Visa employees is essential for a company to be able to maintain organizational stability and foster a productive workforce.

By implementing strategies provided by Swineworks, employers can mitigate turnover and retain valuable TN Visa talent.

Victor Ochoa

Victor Ochoa is the Director of Swineworks, the largest staffing company in the swine industry. Born in Mexico City, Mexico and residing in Nashville, Tennessee, he holds a veterinary degree. He started as a TN Visa worker, garnering invaluable experience in swine production and employee management.