Marking the latest push to address a shortage of available workers in Eastern Iowa, Cedar Rapids officials are preparing to unveil a new workforce recruitment initiative in the coming weeks. In an interview with the CBJ following a developer and contractor luncheon hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance Tuesday at the DoubleTree convention […]
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Marking the latest push to address a shortage of available workers in Eastern Iowa, Cedar Rapids officials are preparing to unveil a new workforce recruitment initiative in the coming weeks.
In an interview with the CBJ following a developer and contractor luncheon hosted by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance Tuesday at the DoubleTree convention complex, Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said the new program, which she termed a “growth initiative,” will be launched by the end of June.
The workforce recruitment program will involve collaboration with several area mayors, Ms. O’Donnell said, and will comprise a new campaign designed to bring new workers to the Cedar Rapids area.
While declining to provide additional details, Ms. O’Donnell said the new initiative would involve expanding on “some of the work that the state is already doing around workforce development, but drilling it down to our metro area.”
In remarks to the group of about 240 attendees, Ms. O’Donnell highlighted a number of development initiatives in the Cedar Rapids area, both from existing companies and newcomers, including $100 million-plus projects for BAE Systems, Sub-Zero and FedEx, which have brought hundreds of jobs to the community.
“As you know, Cedar Rapids is the driver of this regional economy,” Ms. O’Donnell said. “We take that role very seriously and are committed to living up to that expectation by putting more talent and resources on the plate.”
She also highlighted one of the challenges such growth brings – the need for more workers.
“We cannot talk about our business development growth without talking about the people that we need for all those jobs,” she said. “So while we attract employers, we must simultaneously talk about attracting and retaining employees as well, as Cedar Rapids becomes an increasingly desirable place for businesses to locate, our constrained labor market can be a limiting factor, and we are acutely aware of that.”
Other significant development projects under way, including the Greenway project, the Lightline project, and multi-use developments such as Loftus Lumber, First and First West and the Parkway West housing development at Westdale Town Center, will improve the city’s quality of life as well as helping to meet the city’s ever-growing housing demand, Ms. O’Donnell said.
After the meeting, Ms. O’Donnell said she believes the city’s recent growth can be sustained with continued cooperative efforts between the public and private sectors.
“I keep thinking that eventually it will slow down,” she said. “We've not seen it yet. And I think that's a real credit to the city in terms of our financial health. I'm extremely optimistic because we have such a great story to tell. And at the end of the day, affordability is everything. I hope we can continue to tell that story about being affordable, that not only can you make a living wage here, but we're also going to give you a quality of life, and you're going to be able to have an affordable house.”
In her remarks to attendees, Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) director Debi Durham highlighted the state’s expansive efforts to recruit and retain employees and businesses. She pointed to the several of the state’s primary vertical trading clusters – including advanced manufacturing, biosciences and educational technology – as providing the greatest avenues for business growth.
However, with the state’s unemployment rate hovering around 2.9% and a shortage of 69,000 workers statewide, efforts to recruit and retain new residents are vital, she said.
“We have more openings in our marketplace than we have people unemployed,” she said. “We talk about unemployment, which is certainly a good economic indicator, but to me, the most important statistic we should be paying attention to when it comes to workforce is participation rates.”
Those rates have declined dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic, and surprisingly, they’re reaching across demographic groups and genders. Perhaps most surprisingly, labor force participation is declining among men aged 25 to 34.
“This is not an Iowa issue. This is a national issue,” Ms. Durham said. "I would tell you from a society's point of view, that's alarming.”
The IEDA has launched a number of efforts designed to recruit more people to Iowa, Ms. Durham, ranging from affordable housing initiatives to marketing campaigns to highlight the state’s quality of life, natural amenities and cultural attractions.
In response to a question, Ms. Durham noted that technological advances, ranging from robotics and Manufacturing 4.0 initiatives to ChatGPT and AI, will provide a wealth of opportunities for Iowa businesses and developers.
“You either go forward or we go backwards,” she said. “We have 10,000 Baby Boomers a day exiting our workforce. You have to prepare for tomorrow … we have to look at technology and automation and AI, and though so there's parts of AI that are scary, it’s really how we transform our economies. We are going to digital plant floors, and we did accelerated depreciation incentives to encourage people to make this journey to Manufacturing 4.0 We do it through technology innovation, and we do it by bringing opportunity here. Because people will come.”
Eastern Iowa Airport director Marty Lenss also spoke to the group, highlighting a number of projects under way at the airport. Chief among them: the final, $68 million phase of the airport’s four-phase modernization project, which will add four new gates to the airport’s concourse and a host of traveler and airline amenities. The project is planned for completion in the next 18 to 24 months, capping a massive $122 million modernization project that began in 2014.
Mr. Lenss also reminded attendees of other airport initiatives, including the airport’s direct service to Washington, D.C. via American Airlines, which begins June 1; a new fixed-base operator facility for Signature opening at the airport this fall, including new neon ramp lights “so we can turn the building and black and gold, to start getting in the head of the teams when they arrive”; and the launch of construction of a new fuel farm, increasing the airport’s on-site A-1 jet fuel capacity from 80,000 gallons to 300,000 gallons.