Durham lays out the challenges ahead

CBJ Editorial 

Eight Corridor companies and organizations were honored for innovative workforce strategies last week at the CBJ Workforce Awards, an annual program produced in partnership with Kirkwood Community College to highlight and share ideas for attracting and retaining talent.

Before the awards were handed out, keynote speaker Debi Durham, director of both the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority, offered a frank and sobering assessment of the major changes and challenges facing our state’s business community.  She identified five: diversity, sustainability, automation, uncertainty and infrastructure.

Iowa faces a worsening demographic picture, with an estimated 100 baby boomers leaving the state’s workforce each day and at times more job openings than unemployed people.

Our infrastructure is improving, thanks to a fuel tax increase approved in 2017, but our broadband connectivity is uneven and our housing stock is aging rapidly. And despite the fact that nearly a quarter of all work hours will be automated by 2030, half of Iowa companies say they spend less than 2% of their sales revenue on research and development activities – hardly a recipe for accelerating innovation.

Yes, our state has many strengths which it has successfully built upon, from our leadership position in biofuels production and renewable energy to our enviable concentration of insurance, finance and biosciences companies. In many metrics, we are doing things right, especially compared to some of our Midwestern neighbors, but we cannot become complacent or think that things will never change.

In particular Ms. Durham recommends that as communities look to the future, they acknowledge the areas in which they’re strongest – think food processing in Cedar Rapids, EdTech in Iowa City, or insurance in Des Moines  – and focus on offering what they need to thrive and prosper in the changing technological and economic climate.

Ms. Durham’s perch atop two state agencies charged with supporting our state’s businesses and ensuring their workers have access to affordable housing gives her a unique and valuable vantage point in evaluating our ability to draw new workers to the state, and we would urge our state and community leadership to heed her words carefully as they work to address these thorny, complex issues.

Ms. Durham echoed that sentiment in response to a question on how to approach Iowans who are concerned that the state’s cultural fabric is changing too rapidly by welcoming immigrants or embracing automation in the workplace. She did not hesitate or pull her punches.

“Well sorry, it’s happening,” she said. “You can’t stay the same, it doesn’t work that way. If you stay the same, you go backwards. Sorry if you feel that way, but we’re moving forward and we’re going to grow our state.”

Change is frequently uncomfortable, and at times extremely hard. But we couldn’t agree more with Ms. Durham that change is accelerating, and we need to adjust our strategies to it rather than having our state dragged behind.