If Jennifer Banta could identify the three top priorities for Corridor business leaders from the 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature that opened Jan. 10, they would look something like this: 1) Workforce 2) Workforce, and 3) Workforce. Of course, Ms. Banta, vice president of advocacy and community development for the Iowa City Area Business […]
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If Jennifer Banta could identify the three top priorities for Corridor business leaders from the 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature that opened Jan. 10, they would look something like this:
2) Workforce, and
Of course, Ms. Banta, vice president of advocacy and community development for the Iowa City Area Business Partnership, and Barbra Solberg, public policy strategist for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, have developed a joint list of public policy priorities for 2022 – the fourth consecutive year that the two economic development agencies have worked together on identifying top issues for the Corridor’s business community.
And while that list entails six primary categories, with detailed topical breakdowns in each category, Ms. Banta said it all comes down to attracting and retaining a qualified workforce to Iowa – one of just a handful of states, Iowa Public Radio reports, that hasn’t doubled its population in the last 100 years.
“Welcoming workers, enhancing community attractions, regaining our status as an educational leader, as well as closing the opportunity gap and ending barriers to employment – those four are really all about workforce attraction and retention,” Ms. Banta said. “If there’s any different flavor this year from in the past, we used to break everything out (into) three buckets. We had a workforce bucket, a business bucket and a community development bucket. We got rid of those three this year and just said, we’re focusing on workforce. And even embracing solutions for utilizing technology – that has a lot to do with Manufacturing 4.0 and finding solutions to our workforce issues through technology.
“We’ve always hinted that workforce is our biggest challenge,” she added. “This year, we’re removing everything else, and we’re saying our major issue (for) economic growth here in the state of Iowa is the lack of workforce.”
Ms. Solberg concurred. “Obviously, we have a workforce problem, and we’re not going to solve it unless we have more bodies,” she said. “It’s more than a skills gap, which we do have also. But it’s a people gap. We have more jobs than people, and we need more people to move here and stay here.”
For their part, state lawmakers are vowing to address the state’s lack of available workers. There’s little true consensus, however, on the ideal solution to the issue.
“You keep seeing that people are dropping out of the workforce,” Ms. Banta said. “I think the Legislature has a lot to do this year to address why people are dropping out. How do we attract and retain people to come to the state of Iowa?”
Ms. Solberg said she’d like state leaders to prioritize placemaking initiatives, such as Vision Iowa 2.0, to position Iowa as a more attractive place to live and work.
Ms. Solberg also pointed to the state’s housing shortage as an issue, along with immigration reform measures, on both the federal and state level, that could expand the state’s available employee pool.
“Those are just some things that are more immediate solutions,” she said. “They’re not going to solve the problem, but they’re going to be just a part of the puzzle that we need to put together to solve the problem.”
Ms. Banta also noted an issue that she’s stressed for years – the state’s child care crisis, often cited as a key factor in forcing thousands of workers, especially women, out of the workforce because of a lack of available and affordable child care.
“Iowa Workforce Development knows that women have dropped out of the workplace at much higher rates in the state of Iowa than men, and are just not returning,” she said. “So I think addressing the affordability of child care is a major issue.”
It’s also challenging to retain qualified child care providers due to low pay, she said, noting that many retailers are offering starting wages of $19 an hour or more, well above the average $11 to $12 hourly pay in the child care field.
While Ms. Banta said she hopes lawmakers can avoid distractions and focus on bipartisan solutions to the state’s most pressing needs, Ms. Solberg said she’s somewhat less optimistic about progress in this year’s session than she’s been in recent years.
“I’ve always been very optimistic,” she said, “but this past year has been a challenge, and I think it’s going to continue to be a challenge. COVID has separated us, and business is about relationships. When you can’t sit in a room with somebody and have a conversation, because you have to be socially distanced or everything’s done by Zoom, it affects everything.
“I would hope that the people that go to (the Statehouse) are there to solve problems,” she added, “and that sometimes means talking to people that you don’t agree with. We’re always reminding our policymakers that finding common ground is really important to our business community. We want things to get done. We don’t want bickering and fighting.”
Top-level priorities for the 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature, as outlined by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the Iowa City Area Business Partnership:
- Welcome workers from all populations
- Enhance community attraction efforts
- Regain status as an education leader and invest in the future workforce
- Close the opportunity gap and end barriers to employment
- Embrace solutions utilizing technology and natural resources
- Promote and incentivize business growth