Facing labor shortage, Iowa launches ambitious campaign to attract skilled workers

DES MOINES, Iowa – This state wants to shed its image of “pork, corn and politics.”

Iowa is attracting a growing number of high-tech companies and startups – but now those companies are having a difficult time finding skilled workers.

Iowa is not alone. Businesses that opened up or moved to the Midwest said they are struggling to fill jobs and attract top talent. That reality was underscored when there was an apparent revolt at the Department of Agriculture after the agency announced it would move two offices from Washington D.C. to Kansas. Many agency employees quit rather than move to the Midwest.

Randy Edeker, CEO of Hy-Vee, a grocery store chain found in the Midwest, said the company is in the process of opening an e-commerce fulfillment center in Omaha and at least two new stores in Minneapolis and Kansas City, which means the company will need bakers, retail associates and even technical workers.

Inside the Hy-Vee Innovation Center in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Inside the Hy-Vee Innovation Center in Des Moines, Iowa. 

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But he said some recruits have brushed off the state as one that revolves around agriculture.

“The economy is much more diverse than farming,” Hy-Vee said. “Farming, obviously, is a huge part of what we do and we're proud of that. But on the other side, look at some of the other companies that are here, including Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Wells Fargo, and even Apple is building a facility here.”

A cornfield located in Grimes, Iowa. Iowa leads the nation in ethanol production, with 39 percent of the corn grown in Iowa going to create nearly 30 percent of all American ethanol, according to Iowa Corn.

A cornfield located in Grimes, Iowa. Iowa leads the nation in ethanol production, with 39 percent of the corn grown in Iowa going to create nearly 30 percent of all American ethanol, according to Iowa Corn.

Hy-Vee employs about 82,000 people across 260 stores and gas stations. The company is growing and hopes to keep its central operations in Iowa. It wants to hire 2,000 workers by 2020.

But it may have to re-evaluate its location if it can’t find workers.

“I think it’s one of those states that once people discover it, they understand how amazing it is,” Edeker said.

The state also has a low unemployment rate, at 2.4 percent, compared to the national average of 3.7 percent. But that remarkable stat reveals something else: few people are looking for work.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that some states in the Midwest have an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent.

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor reveals that some states in the Midwest have an unemployment rate of less than 3 percent.

State officials are now trying to change Iowa’s image as a farming community, hoping to attract workers from big cities to its growing high-tech hub.

“We have to market ourselves as a high-tech place to work,” said Phil Jasper, president of Mission Systems for Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids. “Once they understand the work we’re doing and they take a look around, they will realize it’s a very friendly place in terms of cost of living.”

But officials are realizing that offering low cost living is not enough.

They are also working with local schools and colleges to make sure talented Iowans stay in the state and don’t ended up moving to the East or West coast.

“At the Iowa Business Council, we’re working with regional institutions, K through 12 education, and community colleges to really educate students at an early age about the career opportunities and why they should live here in Iowa,” Georgia Van Gundy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council.

Van Gundy said not filling open jobs in the state of Iowa could hinder growth. There are currently 82,000 open jobs in Iowa.

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“We’ve got a strong economy right now,” she said. “If our businesses see that and they want to grow, and we're not able to find the talent here in the state, […] then our members are going to have to do operations in other states.”

Iowa officials have also launched an online campaign, called “This Is Iowa,” that they hope will attract new residents. The public-private partnership aims to change that perception of Iowa as a farming community filled with corn and cattle.

"Our economy is humming and unemployment rates remain historically low, but Iowa’s population is not growing," Gov. Kim Reynolds said when she announced the campaign, according to the Sioux City Journal. "We just need more people."