Iowa has more job postings than job seekers. What does that mean for businesses?

Workers label and package bottles of juniper berries at Frontier Co-Op in Norway in 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In Rhonda Griffin’s 26 years at Centro Inc. in North Liberty, it’s never been so difficult to fill positions.

“It’s taking so long to be able to hire,” said Griffin, the company’s human resources director. “The shortage in applicants is making it very difficult to even find candidates.”

The custom rotational molder manufacturer, which has about 400 employees and 30 openings, is not alone. Iowa has more job vacancies than job seekers, creating a challenging hiring environment for many employers.

Iowa Workforce Development’s IowaWORKS online job portal has 62,724 postings as of April 27.

But only 35,042 people filed for unemployment in the week ending April 24, according to preliminary data released by IWD.

Indeed, an online job site, had 28.6 percent more Iowa openings posted this past week than on Feb. 1, 2020, according to data released by the company. Nationwide, there were 22.4 percent more openings.

Barbra Solberg, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance’s public policy strategist, described it as a “multilayered, multifaceted” situation.

“This is an issue we’ve heard from our members for a very long time,” Solberg said.

“Although we had people unemployed from various industries, they didn’t have the skills — of no fault of their own — to fill the still-huge gap of jobs that were opening.”

Megan Schulte, vice president for human resources at Frontier Co-Op in Norway, said this challenge has been far from a surprise.

“Five years ago, we knew that there was going to be an issue finding the skill set we need in the manufacturing sector,” Schulte said. “But it’s finally starting to hit companies now.”

Frontier Co-Op has 30 to 40 openings, Schulte said, which are almost exclusively in its manufacturing division.

Megan Schulte, Frontier Co-op

Kate Moreland, the president of Iowa City Area Development Group, said application fatigue during COVID-19 may be keeping some jobless Iowans from pursuing work.

“People were maybe looking earlier in the year and might have gotten some fatigue about looking,” Moreland said.

Many jobless Iowans have also faced challenges filing for unemployment, in some cases going more than a month in between payments. If someone does not file for unemployment, the worker is not counted as being unemployed.

Moreland and Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance’s Solberg both pointed to child care as another impediment to people reentering the workforce.

An employee stocks shelves at the Frontier Co-Op corporate office in Norway in 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

“Child care is definitely a big obstacle to employment and has been for a long time,” Solberg said.

“COVID made that problem even worse. … How do you put a third-grader in front of the computer all day when you’re at work?”

At the same time, the remote work trend has created more competition for Iowa’s workforce.

“There’s certainly a segment of our population that wants to continue remote working,” Moreland said.

“There are also more opportunities. Nationally being able to find a remote job just got a lot easier in the last six months.”

Moreland said some of that may change as vaccinations progress, though. More than 1 million Iowans have been vaccinated so far.

“As the percentage of vaccinations goes up and safety becomes less of a concern, I think we’ll start to see a return of people willing to be in those in-person roles,” Moreland said.

Kate Moreland, Iowa City Area Development Group

Some business leaders have pointed to the additional unemployment benefits from the federal relief bills as a reason for Iowans not working. Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation offers an additional $300 in weekly unemployment benefits.

An analysis by The Gazette of information from Iowa Workforce Development shows only certain low-income individuals make more money directly through FPUC than holding down a job.

Someone without dependents would need to make less than $9.33 per hour to earn less working than on unemployment benefits. For people with four or more dependents, they would need to make less than $9.73 per hour.

That’s well below the Linn County individual median income, which is $34,626 or $16.65 per hour, but above Iowa’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Iowa’s below-average population growth adds to the challenges in finding employees.

Iowa’s population grew by 4.7 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to U.S. Census data, which was behind the national population growth rate of 7.4 percent. That leaves many business leaders concerned about the size of Iowa’s workforce.

“We’re in dire straits,” Solberg said. “We have got to figure out making the state grow.”

The Iowa Business Council, which represents 22 of Iowa’s largest employers, has been especially vocal about the need to grow Iowa’s population, including through recruitment of remote workers and immigration.

Terry Kouba, president of Alliant Energy’s Iowa utility and an IBC member, told The Gazette in March it’s an “unbelievably important topic” and necessary for Iowa’s businesses to grow.

“It’ll help us bring in very, very talented employees,” Kouba said.

In the meantime, businesses have been getting creative about how to operate on reduced staffs.

Debi Durham, director of Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority, said earlier this year she heard from one manufacturer whose executives took a hands-on approach to making up for the vacant positions.

“I never heard this before, but they’re having their executive teams helping work on Saturdays on the line,” Durham said.

Griffin said Centro turned to temporary workers from staffing companies in the last economic downturn. But that hasn’t worked this time.

“Even temporary services now are struggling finding people to place,” Griffin said.

Instead, many “very loyal, dedicated” Centro employees have been working 12-hour shifts for six to seven days per week.

Frontier Co-Op, which produces spices, herbs and other products, has asked employees if they can take overtime shifts without making it mandatory.

The lack of workers, Schulte said, held back the company from growing as much as it otherwise could, though.

“The work just won’t be able to get done unless we get these positions filled,” Schulte said.

Solberg, of the Economic Alliance, is optimistic about “multifaceted solutions,” though, for the multifaceted problems.

“I don’t think we’d be in this business if we didn’t think this was a solvable issue,” Solberg said.

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