Alejandro Gutierrez-Li joined the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University as an Assistant Professor in August 2020. Alejandro’s work focuses on the economics of labor, including labor supply and demand, wages, labor mobility, and immigration policy. To get to know him better, here are his answers to questions about agricultural labor, the development of his Extension program, and more.
What do you think are some of the greatest challenges facing the agricultural labor market in the United States today?
One of the major challenges is the diminishing availability of workers in the fields. Most of the second half of the last century was characterized by a relative abundance of workers in agriculture. This led to lower wages for workers, lower production costs, and few incentives for growers to invest in labor-saving technologies. The situation today is very different. Farmers across the country have been experiencing difficulties to hire and retain workers in all the stages of the production process. The problem has been caused by a variety of factors including an increase in border enforcement (a non-negligible fraction of agricultural workers is undocumented), economic growth in Mexico (the primary source country of workers), and the aging of the agricultural workforce.
An additional challenge is that potential solutions to the problem of agricultural labor scarcity are not easy to implement. Farm work is tough. Agricultural workers want their children to transition to non-farm occupations. Contrary to what we see in other labor markets, once agricultural workers leave the sector, they do not tend to return. Even in periods of recession and high unemployment, and despite wages increases, very few native-born workers are attracted to agriculture. Immigration policy changes are generally controversial and mechanization efforts require high upfront costs for farmers and considerable time to be implemented. In addition, economic growth in Mexico encourages agricultural workers to transition to other sectors like services, which leads to higher agricultural wages in Mexico and reduces the incentives to move North.
What did your dissertation and graduate research focus on?
My dissertation analyzed three questions associated with entrepreneurship and immigration. In the main chapter, I studied the role that pre-migration work experience of immigrants plays in their occupational choices and earnings after migrating to the United States. I found that immigrants who worked only as entrepreneurs before moving are more likely to be self-employed in the US. In contrast, I did not find a significant influence of pre-migration experience on US earnings. Barriers to the transferability of human capital across countries or individuals choosing self-employment for non-pecuniary reasons like being their own boss or having more time flexibility could be playing a role. Immigrant entrepreneurship is an understudied topic, but it has gained relevance due to the significant increase in the number of immigrant-founded companies in the U.S. and discussions in Congress to create an immigrant entrepreneurship visa. My work analyzed a specific dimension, home country labor market experience, that helps identify immigrants with a proclivity to become entrepreneurs in the U.S. and be more likely to serve the purpose of the immigrant entrepreneurship visa.
The second chapter of my dissertation studied the relationship between business ownership in Mexico and migration to the United States. Since the last decade, the net migration flows from Mexico to the U.S. have been declining. This means that the number of people returning to Mexico exceeds the number of Mexicans moving North. For sectors that rely heavily on Mexican immigrants like agriculture, construction, food, and housekeeping services, this is a problem and research helping us to better understand the factors that explain the decline in immigration is needed. Finally, the last essay of my dissertation analyzed the role of family control in CEO turnover, firm performance, and research and development investments in large public corporations.
How do you see your Extension program developing?
Mine is a new position that NC State took the lead in creating in light of the many challenges that the agricultural sector faces related to labor. My main goal regarding extension is to provide research-based information that will help policymakers and stakeholders make better decisions. In the few months that I have been here, I have found plenty of opportunities to jump-start my program. I am particularly interested in developing tools to help farmers train, manage, and retain agricultural workers. I also want to work in close collaboration with different teams. In this regard, I have already started working with specialists at the North Carolina Department of Commerce, non-profit institutions, extension agents and specialists, and organizations of growers. In addition, I am working with a great group of researchers and extension agents from different disciplines here at NC State on a farmworker pesticide training program that we will start implementing next year.
Another important area that I want to direct my program to is interdisciplinary collaborations. I have already developed contacts with other researchers and extension economists working on agricultural labor issues. Likewise, I have joined a multi-state project with researchers from different disciplines at other land-grant universities. We are analyzing labor management, sustainable practices, and economic contributions in the US horticultural industry.
Finally, there are many lessons we will have to learn from the current pandemic, which will point to new directions in which extension can be of help. Farmworkers were recently declared essential, reminding us of how important agriculture is for a society to function, although this is sometimes taken for granted. Overall, I am excited about the opportunity to make a positive impact on the people of North Carolina, the country, and the world.
How does it feel to enter your career in the time of COVID-19?
The world has changed a lot in the past few months! When I visited the university earlier this year, I would have not imagined that things were going to change so dramatically in such a short period of time. I had to relocate to Raleigh and start my new job here amid the evolving context of the pandemic. The transition, however, was relatively smooth, thanks to the great group of colleagues that I am privileged to have here at NC State. Our campus is gorgeous, and Raleigh is an awesome and thriving city that is growing very rapidly. The pandemic has changed the way we do research and extension. It has not changed the ultimate reason why we do them, which is to serve the people of North Carolina and beyond. That being said, I am counting the days to start traveling to the different parts of our beautiful state and meet with people…in person!