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SIOUX CITY -- Georgia Van Gundy, the executive director and board secretary of the Iowa Business Council, said Friday that Iowa has work to do to attract a skilled and diverse workforce to the state.

"Everybody talks about population and diversity, and we want to get something done in this area," Van Gundy said in a Friday morning meeting with the Journal editorial board. She was accompanied by Wells Enterprises Inc. president and CEO Mike Wells. 

The Council on Monday recently released its 2019 competitive dashboard report, which examines Iowa's business competitiveness in five metrics -- economic growth, education and workforce, governance, health and wellness and demographics and diversity. 

Iowa's demographics and diversity rating was poor. The state is the 46th least-diverse state, according to the report, and the state is 30th in overall population. Only 14.1 percent of the state's population is non-white. 

Van Gundy said the state needs to find a way to attract skilled workers, and in general to increase the state's population and diversity. 

Wells and Van Gundy stopped short of taking a position on immigration, which in theory would bring in more diverse workers. Van Gundy told the Cedar Rapids Gazette this week that immigration is "something we're going to tease out." 

"When we look at diversity, it isn't so much about immigration as much as it is, what can we do to make the state of Iowa look similar in diversity of those folks that live here, similar in demographics of what we see across the United States?" Wells said. 

For Wells, that means businesses need to embrace and encourage affordable housing options, local quality-of-life and cultural offerings that workers find appealing, as well as bilingual accommodations in the workplace. 

Van Gundy said IBC is "putting together a group of thought leaders" in Iowa to examine the diversity and population issue. 

Policies supported by IBC include Gov. Kim Reynolds' $20 million recommendation for workforce housing tax credits program and reforming childcare benefits regulations to allow recipients to earn more money without losing their benefits. Benefits currently begin being cut off when a recipient's pay goes above 145 percent of the poverty level. 

Van Gundy called it "the childcare cliff effect," and Wells said a number of people find themselves "trapped" in un- or under-employment due to the risk of losing their state childcare benefits. 

"That's when individuals are not taking pay raises, because they lose too much of their childcare benefits in order to do that," she said. The group supports raising the scale to 200 percent of the poverty level, "So that they could continue to increase their income and not significantly lose their benefits." 

Both Van Gundy and Wells spoke at length about Iowa's efforts to improve the state's quality of life. The number of active primary care physicians in Iowa decreased to 82.8 per 100,000 in 2018, and it appears that doctors and other educated people are leaving the state for more attractive opportunities in other parts of the country. 

"Our challenge as a state is to create those opportunities in these communities, so that when you're a well-educated 20-something, you don't feel like you've got to run to the east and the west coast to get the 'life experience' that you're looking for," Wells said. 

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Lifestyles Reporter

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