(Un)Hired Help: Reflecting on a year of workforce reporting

This marks the conclusion of the CBJ’s members-only series exploring the causes and symptoms of Iowa’s worker shortage. We look back at some of the biggest lessons learned and gather more than 15 takeaways and solutions your company can use to build a better workforce in the year ahead. 


By Dave DeWitte and Katharine Carlon

All this year, the CBJ has been exploring the causes and effects of the Corridor’s worker shortage, as well as the wants and needs of workers and the challenges of adapting to a rapidly evolving business environment where tech, regulations and tradewinds can change at a moment’s notice.

To say our challenge was daunting is an understatement. Over the course of the series, we’ve looked at the historical reasons for Iowa’s acute undersupply of skilled labor – a situation at least one Corridor economic official called “stifling” to future growth – and what the state is doing to address it. We talked to many employers about the types of workers they’re seeking, and to workers about what both draws them and keeps them on the job. We looked at the shifting nature of jobs and how employees and employers are responding. And we investigated why diversity is an essential piece of the solution.

One of our top takeaways was that although Iowa’s population growth is slower than most states, it is far from the worst contributor to the state’s talent shortage. Rather, it centers around a skills mismatch reflecting the failure of the state’s employers and educational system to prepare workers for the kind of jobs that exist in an emerging economy that’s more online, more digital and more automated.

“Fifty-one thousand of the 127,000 Iowans we need to get upskilled are adults with no post-secondary education,” said Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend. “They’re not living at the poverty level – they’ve been working. Convincing them that now is the time to take that step and get some education is not an easy thing to do, and we recognize it.”

At the same time, employers and employees alike are dealing with disruptions to traditional full-time employment. The shadow of the Great Recession has loomed large over the past decade, leading to the rise of job-hopping and alternative work arrangements, along with an increase in short-term contract and temporary workers. Automation is both eliminating traditional low-skilled jobs and creating new higher-skilled ones daily, underlining the need for constant, ongoing retraining if we are to build the workforce of tomorrow.

That will require an all-hands on deck approach in which government, educational institutions and employers come together and grapple with solutions. There is no silver bullet to the region’s workforce woes, and all partners will have to shoulder their share of the responsibility.

“The days of an employee doing the same job for the same way for years is over,” said Katherine Pine, business marketing specialist for Iowa WORKS.

The following article represents an encapsulation of our reporting from the first five parts of our (un)Hired Help series, along with 18 takeways, strategies and solutions that you can use to begin building a stronger, more productive workforce at your company.

Our reporting is by no means definitive or exhaustive, and we wish we’d had even more time to investigate factors like transportation and housing that impede workers from living near existing jobs, or the impact of a relative lack of cultural and recreational amenities in drawing workers to the state.

We will continue to investigate causes and solutions to our region’s labor issues in the weeks and months to come, and invite you to join the conversation with insights of your own. What can our region do better to meet the #workforce challenge? Weigh in on Facebook and Twitter at @CBJournal.

Read the full, members-only feature in the Sept. 9 print or digital editions of the CBJ. Not a member? Join today.