Wanted by 2012: 200,000 Workers

Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register, March 19, 2006

Newcomer Gerri Crockett, a 23-year-old engineer, and Rick Callen, a 52-year-old manufacturing worker in Ottumwa, could be today’s answer to a future problem: a worker shortage.

By 2012, Iowa is projected to have up to 200,000 more jobs than workers to fill them, the result of Iowa’s stagnant population growth converging with impending baby boom retirements.

The shortfall would likely push wages higher and improve benefits for all workers over time. But experts warn that businesses could move from Iowa or decide against locating in the state without an adequate supply of workers.

“People in this community, in this corridor, understand we are on the verge of a crisis,” said Lee Clancy, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce. A coalition of Cedar Rapids-Iowa City businesses plans to pump $3 million over the next five years to make eastern Iowa more appealing to minorities, a fast-growing population that could boost Iowa’s waning work force.

Gov. Tom Vilsack first rang the warning bell on the looming crisis six years ago, but he no longer believes a labor shortage is inevitable. The economy is much different, he said.

Employers, however, are already preparing. They’re scrambling to retain older employees such as Callen, a union leader who qualified to retire four years ago, and to attract young workers like Crockett, a Virginia native whom Rockwell Collins recruited to Iowa.

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Demographic trends indicate Iowa should to look to minority groups to increase the state population, said Rockwell’s Dooley.

Iowa’s white population barely budged from 1990 to 2000, growing a slim 2.4 percent, while Iowa’s Hispanic population, for example, grew 153 percent.

And 70 percent of the entrants to the U.S. work force will be women and minorities by 2008, Dooley said.

Looking at those demographics, Rockwell, along with employers like Alliant Energy and ACT Inc., have committed $1.9 million to finance Diversity Focus, the initiative backers hope will attract more minorities to the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor.

Leaders acknowledge that finding support for more minorities in mostly white Iowa could be challenging.

Kelley, who leads Iowans for a Better Future, a group that pushes for strategies that position Iowa for growth, said many minorities were upset when lawmakers made English the state’s official language four years ago.

Max Cardenas, a consultant at Emerging Markets, which helps develop diversity strategies for business and government groups, said Iowans and newcomers “share common ground.”

“Minorities see Iowa as a beacon of hope . . . to escape unsafe streets, to find a haven to raise their families and good job opportunities,” Cardenas said. “We can help each other.”

Michael Hogan, provost of the University of Iowa, said the state needs to “develop on both sides an appreciation of how differences enrich the lives of all of us.”

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