In Harrisburg visit, SBA chief fields concerns on trade, workforce
Trade, jobs and immigration were on the minds of business people, legislators and others who met this week in Harrisburg with Linda McMahon, the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
McMahon took part on Tuesday in a roundtable discussion at the Commonwealth Charter Academy in Harrisburg to discuss issues affecting local business and industry.
First up were issues affecting farmers, who raised issues of trade.
Keith Eckel, owner of the Lackawanna County-based Fred W. Eckel Sons Farms in Lackawanna County, said he wanted to see trade agreements that would assist farmers, especially dairy farmers who seek access to Canadian dairy markets.
“It’s key today,” he said.
In November 2018, the United States, Canada and Mexico signed a trade deal to replace North American Free Trade Agreement that was signed into law in 1994.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement has a provision that allows the U.S. more access to the Canadian dairy industry.
McMahon said that that the Trump administration remains hopeful that the agreement will receive Congressional approval.
Eckel said that, in the past, he has supported provisions calling for trade agreements to be revisited every two years as markets evolve and change. However, such a clause never moved past the discussion phase, much to the detriment of farmers who have been hurt by the lack of revisions to existing agreements, he said.
“I can’t say that was ever done. It’s long overdue to address it now,” he said.
Workforce development also was on the minds or roundtable participants, including state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre County), who said it was his biggest concern.
The representative said that over the past few decades, public education has promoted four-year college education over manual labor, and now there is a labor shortage in industries such as construction and agriculture.
“We’ve diminished the quality of manual, physical labor,” he said.
Maurice Flurie, CEO of the Commonwealth Charter Academy, a cyber charter school, agreed, saying that most schools need to consider the future needs of businesses and train students accordingly.
“We need to prepare students for the jobs we’ll need to fill,’ he said.
Immigration policy rounded out discussion, as small businesses have increasingly relied on immigrants to fill the void left by high school graduates who have been turning away from manual labor in favor of higher education.
Eckel said that while business owners may have different political viewpoints on immigration, they all need immigrants to fulfill their need for manual labor. He said that the H-2A guest worker program needs to be modified, but it hasn’t been since the Reagan administration.
“I can sit here and tell you without exaggeration there will not be a fresh fruit and vegetable business left in this country if we do not update that program in a reasonable period of time,” he said.
Right now, there is no guarantee of a continual influx of skilled labor, he said.
McMahon agreed, saying that the current focus has been on building a wall along the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration, but that the issue of immigration is far more complex and integral to the success of small businesses and the economy at large.
“It’s about full immigration reform and that’s what we have to do,” she said.
McMahon is the 15th administrator of the SBA, which provides a variety of financing options for small businesses.
The SBA also provides mentoring and counseling to entrepreneurs across the country need to determine whether they should proceed with a business endeavor, McMahon noted in comments delivered before the roundtable began.
“Sometimes you have to tell them it’s not a good idea. It’s a little bit like telling a new mother her baby is ugly,” she said. “But it’s part of what SBA does.”