To meet workforce demands in health care, IT and other sectors, Massachusetts will need a lot more immigrants to fill jobs. Baby Boomers are retiring more quickly than previous estimates suggested and there aren't enough U.S. workers to replace them. At the same time, overall college enrollment is declining.

Brooke Thomson, a vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the state's largest business group, recently spoke to one employer who spent years training a recent Northeastern University engineering graduate, only to have him forced to return to India when his visa expired.

“If we cannot keep and retain the individuals who we are drawing here through academia then you're really disrupting the pipeline," she said.

Anew report by the think tank MassINC projects a 10% decrease in the number of skilled workers in Massachusetts by the year 2030. That comes after a four-decade run of 25% increases in workers with degrees, according to Ben Forman, who directed the research.

One key factor is that international immigration has slowed since 2016. “It's kind of like going 90 miles an hour and hitting a brick wall,” he said.

Forman says Massachusetts, like many other states, has built a knowledge economy based on the idea that companies and hospitals could depend on a steady supply of college-educated workers. And to him, the downward labor trend is troublesome, though not surprising.

“We talked about these issues for decades and decades, and now, we’re feeling the problems," he said. "Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, the pandemic came and disrupted everything.’ And the pandemic didn't help at all, but we’ve got to recognize that these problems were there well before the pandemic."

Thomson said that’s why her business group wants the federal government to expand access to work visas to help employers fill jobs.

“The volcano hasn't even erupted yet. We're sitting on top of it,” she said, adding that her members, some who lean conservative, try to avoid being dragged into debates surrounding immigration, especially controversies like the recent incident where Venezuelan migrants were flown to Martha’s Vineyard.

“It does frustrate them that there is a tension around situations like this and not focus on the things that could really impact our bottom line economically,” Thomson said. “These political sideshows are really just distracting. They’re not helping."

The worker shortage applies to unskilled workers too, says Dany Bahar, who teaches public policy and economics at Brown University.

The number of new high school graduates in New England is expected to shrink by nearly 13%, a demographic cliff that's expected through the year 2037. Bahar said Northeastern states in particular will need more immigrants to fill both skilled and unskilled jobs.

“[The] Massachusetts governor and the governor of New York, they should be sending letters to [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis thanking him for sending those immigrants,” he said, referring to the migrants who have been transported from the South to Northern states.

Bahar, an immigrant from Venezuela, said it’s frustrating to see other migrants — who are fleeing violence and poverty in his home country — being used as political pawns to mobilize conservative voters instead of individuals seeking safety and economic opportunity.

He said the Florida governor's “stunt” in Martha’s Vineyard shows how racism and xenophobia continue to influence policies related to immigration.

“If there’s anything wrong with America and immigration, it’s that we need more of it,” he said.

And even when immigrants do come to Massachusetts seeking better opportunities, they face challenges. Ugandan refugee Hajarah Nakalyango said she works as many as 100 hours a week to pay her way through nursing school at Mount Wachusett Community College and support her 3-year-old son.

The 30-year-old, who fled violence in Uganda in 2017 and is estranged from her Muslim parents, is a home health care aide outside of Boston.

“To get the amount of money you want, you have to work a lot of hours,” she said.

Until her asylum status is approved, Nakalyango is ineligible for financial aid. She has to work extra hours to pay double what an in-state student pays for tuition.

“If my finances weren’t my problem, I could now be focusing on my education a lot,” she said. “It’s really annoying.”

Nakalyango is pretty sure that by the time she graduates from nursing school, an employer will be waiting with a job.

“Immigrants get the job done,” she said. “The world needs us.”