For the better part of the last century, Iowa has seen minimal population growth. In 1900, Iowa ranked as the 10th most populous state, but fell to 31st after the 2018 Census estimates – the largest such decline among states. Here in Siouxland, the majority of our counties lost population. Buena Vista, Cherokee, Clay, Crawford, Ida, Monona, O’Brien, Osceola and Sac counties all saw a decline between 2010 and 2017, with Plymouth and Woodbury counties only growing slightly.
In the past three years, the local metro region has been named No. 1 in the nation for economic development by Site Selection magazine. To experience continued economic growth, businesses of all sizes must attract or retain workers to fill the available skilled positions. With Iowa at nearly full employment, and our population growth lagging, it is clear that this workforce challenge, which is quickly becoming an economic growth challenge, can only be solved by attracting diverse workers to Iowa from across the country and beyond.
The Iowa Business Council (IBC), of which I am a member, engages in advocacy rooted in data and research. Each year, the IBC releases Iowa’s Competitive Dashboard, which is comprised of in-depth statistics related to five key indicators: economic growth, education and workforce, governance, health and wellness, and demographics and diversity. After thoroughly examining the results from the Dashboard, our board members lay out advocacy recommendations that are designed to achieve our organizational mission of sustained economic growth in all corners of the state for businesses of all sizes.
This year’s results have created an economic urgency. In order for Iowa to remain economically competitive and attract a skilled workforce to fill the quality jobs across the state, we must come together to attract skilled workers from outside our state. The stark reality is that without more workers, Iowa’s continued economic growth will be limited, and companies may look to other locations to build their businesses.
Over the years, various efforts to address Iowa’s lagging population growth have come and gone. For one reason or another – sometimes political, other times not – efforts stagnated or deteriorated. This time, the IBC is committed to seeing the effort through and harnessing the work of the public and private sectors to address this critical issue.
In the near future, the IBC will bring together a partnership of stakeholders to make recommendations on how we can succeed in this effort. We will identify how we can create more inclusive spaces for all to feel comfortable to succeed, evaluate Iowa’s landscape, and work to leverage existing resources to attract a wide array of families, young professionals and middle-career executives to our state.
Wells Enterprises is not immune from the challenge of attracting and retaining a skilled workforce. To address our problem, we have identified areas in which we can be more welcoming of individuals from diverse backgrounds from around the U.S. Efforts have included embracing a bilingual workplace and creating cultural space within our offices; collaborating with our community on quality of life improvements like trail access and promoting the arts; assisting in affordable housing efforts to find places for our workforce to call home; and, inviting students studying entrepreneurship from the University of Arizona to visit our facilities and present to our executive leadership team. We see an opportunity in our community and at Wells to create an environment that all can enjoy to work, live and play in.
This complex challenge will not be fixed overnight or by one company. Taking action now – in every corner of Iowa – is directly tied to our future economic success.
Iowa’s skilled worker shortage is not simply a result of stagnant population. However, the IBC believes the latter can be a solution to the former.
The time is now: Solving Iowa’s worker shortage must start with partnerships between local communities, leaders and business to attract more individuals to the wonderful state we call home. We know why we cherish this state; let’s show future residents what is possible when they move to Iowa.
Mike Wells is president and chief executive officer of Wells Enterprises, which is headquartered in Le Mars, Iowa. He is a member of the Iowa Business Council board and is a past IBC board chairman.