As a Business Record senior staff writer, when I speak to Greater Des Moines business leaders about challenges and opportunities in the area, I don’t go a month without hearing multiple references to worker shortages — in other words, the need for workforce development. 

Iowa’s population is growing slowly, with a birth rate that nearly guarantees a loss of residents as the baby boomers pass away, so those leaders talk often about immigration. It doesn’t matter that the topic remains politically controversial and a clear divide between Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. 

The Greater Des Moines Partnership’s thick book of policy recommendations last year included language supporting an overhaul of the nation’s visa program — basically in hopes of loosening things up a bit so more workers can help out in the United States. 

That discussion has gone next to nowhere, but the Partnership has made immigration an even bigger priority, teaming up with the Partnership for a New American Economy in the Des Moines Immigration Initiative. A task force hopes to come up with ways to make Central Iowa “a premier destination for foreign-born talent and continued economic advancement.”

That effort is led in part by Des Moines immigration lawyer Lori Chesser, who holds out hope after years of work that things will improve on the immigration front. 

Sherry Gupta runs a nonprofit organization called CultureALL. Among other things, it’s about getting us all comfortable, accepting, even excited about the cultural differences that come with new residents and visitors from around the globe. 

It’s not a new debate. Gov. Tom Vilsack, now U.S. agriculture secretary, in 2000 said that without boosting immigration, Iowa stood to lose population, including workers. “If we want economic opportunity, if we want the quality of life maintained that we’ve grown accustomed to … we are going to have to have people willing to contribute, willing to work,” Vilsack said in a Cedar Rapids Gazette article. 

Vilsack’s talk of immigration met resistance, but he pushed on, noting that many Iowans are descendants of immigrants and reminding residents of the influx of people from Southeast Asia in the 1970s. 

Vilsack’s administration called for the state to attract 310,000 residents between 2000 and 2010 to try to keep the population at healthy levels. The 2000 population was 2,926,324. In 2010, it stood at 3,046,869. That was a gain of 120,545, from all factors. 

More recently, an Iowa State University assistant scientist in the economics department found that immigration was propping up Iowa’s population, which gained 14,418 between July 1, 2014, and July 1, 2015. Iowa’s population growth has been slow and steady since the 2010 census, at just under half a percentage point per year. As of July 1, Iowa’s population stood at 3,123,899, ranking 30th among the states.

We sat down with Chesser, Gupta and Mary Bontrager, a key player in the immigration task force and the Partnership’s executive vice president for workforce development and education, to discuss recent efforts to promote immigration as a way to attract workers to Greater Des Moines.

Tell us a bit about your current work on immigration issues.

Gupta: Effectively, what CultureALL does is to bring people together who are from many different backgrounds so that they can become more familiar with one another. Our model is very simple. We find people who are in the community who were born in other countries and recruit them and train them to put together workshops that are hands-on, engaging experiences so that people want to know more about cultures. 

A lot of times, Iowans don’t like to ask questions. We are afraid to appear stupid. We want them to feel comfortable speaking with someone who has a different accent or who has a dot on their forehead or who has a darker skin tone and to know it’s safe and that it’s rather exhilarating because they have these incredible stories to tell. 

Instead of having them do a lecture or a PowerPoint at people, it’s almost like we bring them into their living room. We have one workshop on Bosnian coffee and hospitality, with Bosnian grinders. The workshop host puts a rug on the floor, and as people are sitting and grinding, she is telling these stories about how she lived in Bosnia before the war. And they take it from there. Most of our work is done in schools, but we do have corporations who call us in. 

A survey of just under 800 Urbandale chamber members is an indication that there is a demand, especially among small and medium-sized businesses, for this type of programming. Companies want to help their employees feel more equipped to work in this global environment. 

Chesser: I practice immigration law, and I am involved with a lot of things that have to do with immigration through the Partnership. We are working on two things. One is the Immigration Initiative in which we are working in partnership with the Partnership for a New American Economy (which is co-led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg). We are working with them to create recommendations so that we can help Des Moines become not only a city that attracts workforce but all that entails as well. I am chairing that initiative. The other thing I am chairing is a smaller immigration council within the (Greater Des Moines) Partnership that is more focused on policy and advocacy in the area of immigration. 

Bontrager: (The immigration council) is about 3 years old, and it was formed really to fill a void when the Immigration Education Council dissolved. A group was formed to look at policy but to also be an extension to educate Iowans across the community. The Partnership became a part of that from a business perspective and the economic development perspective.

Chesser: We see the detrimental effects of the current immigration policy on recruitment, retention and making Des Moines a more vibrant place to live. 

The partnership with the Partnership for a New American Economy was formed to see where we could make recommendations for change, mostly through local actions. We have the education subgroup, the economic development subgroup and the welcoming community subgroup. 

We are just now figuring out what those recommendations might be. We didn’t go in with an agenda. We went in with an openness on what might work in Des Moines. 

Bontrager: The Partnership for a New American Economy has provided us a lot of upfront research. They have worked in many larger metropolitan communities in a similar capacity. They are able to bring context to both process and recommendations from other communities, such as Detroit and St. Louis, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta. They are looking to us to maybe be a model that next-tier cities can follow, just as we are trying to look and learn from these larger metropolitan cities. 

Has the presence of the Partnership for a New American Economy changed the debate?

Chesser: I think it has given us a focus on recommendations and more of a framework. I don’t feel like it’s changing the discussion. It’s more informing it. 

Will the recommendations be to local governments and entities then, and not the federal government?

Chesser: That’s up to the committee.

Bontrager: If we look at plans that have been done in some of these other cities, the recommendations were things that those communities felt they could have some control over. Now, in some cases, some communities did utilize state government in changing things, perhaps like transferability of education or licensure from another country. (Some cities worked to make it easier to get credit for overseas studies.) In the case of Detroit, they have partnered with their state to have a one-stop shop for foreign-born workers to work through those issues of transferability. 

Who is on the committee?

Bontrager: Lori is chairing the committee. Then we have the education and workforce (subgroup), chaired by Terri Vaughan (dean of the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University). The subgroup on economic development is chaired by (Plains Angels co-founder) Tej Dhawan. And then the subgroup on welcoming is chaired by (Polk County Supervisor) Bob Brownell. Across those subgroups are representatives of nonprofits, education, workforce, corporate, health care. 

What is the time frame?

Chesser: We don’t have a real deadline. 

Bontrager: The Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives is our peer group. They recommended us for (the work with the Partnership for a New American Economy). They could package our recommendations and put them out as a template. Our national conference is early August. Ideally the goal would be for us to have something to present in August. 

Chesser: We tried to get together people who were experts and had worked with immigrants and refugees, with immigration issues, with welcoming, with education, all those issues. And then let them discover what they thought would be the best way to make changes. We didn’t go in with an agenda because we didn’t want to inhibit all these experts. We aren’t just packaging what Detroit is doing and using it here. Detroit is a very different city than Des Moines and has a different economy and culture and immigrant history. 

How can Business Record members participate?

Bontrager: Contact the Partnership. We would welcome that.

Are you asking people for input? 

Bontrager: Each subgroup is approaching it. The education subgroup saw a few themes based on the first few meetings. Now we are inviting in folks who are experts or who work in those areas. We all talk about English language proficiency, yet national studies have shown that our foreign-born talent tends to be unemployed or underemployed depending on the level of proficiency. So the more proficient they are with the English language, the higher the probability that they will be employed to their full potential. We’re having some conversation around how far does the current English language learning environment go. What might we look at as a community to continue that learning in networking groups, more community owned? 

Gupta: One of the ways they can help is through CultureALL workshops.

How would someone arrange a workshop?

Gupta: If a business wants to contact us, certainly the website ( is fine. Ultimately, it’s going to have to be a phone call to find out what kind of an experience they want to provide. We could come in and do a diversity training program using the CultureALL style of hands-on experiences. 

We see ourselves as a training program for the cultural ambassadors, people from other countries who are trying to establish themselves here. Some of our ambassadors already are gainfully employed. By virtue of getting them in front of people doing presentations, they are improving their speaking skills, they are improving their networking skills, they are getting more comfortable with who they are and connecting better with their own culture. They see that there are people in this community who do care and get excited about things in their culture that they may have taken for granted. 

Bontrager: As Americans, from a workforce perspective, we understand the importance of networking as it relates to your career search, as it relates to enhancing your career. 

Gupta: Other cultures network through their families, but now, having been uprooted from their families, they need to make new connections, rebuild their family, so to speak. 

Why is immigration important to our present workforce situation? Is there anything that is happening now that makes the debate any different than it was 30 years ago? 

Bontrager: Between 2009 and 2014 in the Des Moines metro area, the total population increased by 12 percent. During that same time, the foreign-born population grew 25.1 percent. We are definitely becoming a more international, global city. So that population, we really can’t afford for those folks to not be contributing to the talent demand that we have. Nationally, it ranges from 25 to 33 percent of the foreign-born talent being not fully employed up to the training and education that they had in their home countries. That is certainly something that we are looking at with the committees.

Again from 2009 to 2014, the share of the teenage population that is foreign-born increased from 9.6 percent to 10.3 percent. The percentage of the employed labor force that is foreign-born rose from 8.4 percent to 9.2 percent. So they are a great contributor to our talent pool. 

When we have an unemployment rate that is as low as what we have, we talk about strategies on how we are going to address that. It is growing our own, and it is attracting from outside the area. The universities’ student international talent continues to grow. A very low percentage of those are able to stay here and enter into our labor force. There is not a mechanism for them to stay. 

What makes this different than before?

Gupta: When I first came to Des Moines about 30 years ago, and I was a reporter covering economic development, the same discussions were going on. And the prescription was, of course, we have to be making connections and recruiting people from outside the United States because we don’t have the population here with brain drain and everything else. I find it fascinating that we are still having these conversations. But what we prescribed is actually happening. We do have a fairly significant amount of people from other countries who are coming here to work. But then we have to make sure we have an environment that is welcoming so we can retain them and so they feel they have the opportunities available to work up the corporate ladder. 

We are seeing pockets and examples of people moving up who are from other cultures. Tej is a wonderful example. Atul (Gupta, founder of Advanced Technologies Group), my husband, is another good example. (Bankers Trust Co. President and CEO) Suku Radia. 

One aspect of creating a welcoming environment is creating a space where their kids feel that this is a good environment for them to advance their learning. And so CultureAll in the classroom is providing the mechanism for kids to get to know one another and feel comfortable. We love having a CultureALL ambassador in the classroom who represents one of the students’ cultures so they can look and see that this role model is successful and welcomed and revered. 

The prediction was across the United States that with students under 15 years of age, the minority would become the majority. That happened in Des Moines Public Schools three years ago. So we were ahead of the nation with that diversity.

That diversity in the schools is now graduating into the workforce. Employers and employees alike feel we still aren’t inclusive enough. That’s why we continue to have a big push in inclusive and diversity initiatives.

Bontrager: I think the workforce shortage is more critical. But we also have great companies like DuPont Pioneer and Principal (Financial Group Inc.) and Kemin (Industries Inc.) and others that are much more global. Their footprint is very international. They want a talent pool that reflects the clients that they serve all across the globe. That has come into play. Forty years ago was the start of our refugee outreach efforts. That was an impetus for us as a community to change the face of who we are. 

Gupta: Iowa is becoming globally diverse at a time when we know we have to be. But we can still get it wrong. So we know that there have been other cities -- and dare I name them: Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago -- that, through history, have developed this strife between cultures and races. Iowa has the good fortune of not having that pre-existing condition. We have the chance to do it right, but we are still prone to the same walls, prejudices, barriers and stereotypes that they had.

The reason that is hasn’t been such a problem is because the minority has been such a minority. It’s not a threat. That’s changing. There is this desperate need for us to become aware of how do we live and work more closely with people from other cultures. I am Iowa proud. I think there are few greater places on Earth, and we have come to the right decisions because it is the right thing to do, and it is humane, but at what point will that fracture?

Chesser: We are addressing this differently because we have to. The trend is for everyone to become more connected. I think there was a little more chance 30 years ago to be parochial than there is now. Des Moines is part of the entire country’s demographic trend, and then we have our own spinoff. We are very fortunate to have this low unemployment rate, but at a certain point, it becomes unsustainable. Everyone is talking about the workforce.

The overarching trend is really just competition for talent globally. That’s the name of the game, really. If we don’t position ourselves to have the talent we need, we will be left behind. There will be winners and there will be losers. If we want to be a winner, (immigration) is one strategy that we have to employ. We have to figure out how to attract the talent we need, nationally and globally, to Des Moines, so that we can fill our workforce needs. Because companies are not going to come here if they can’t hire the talent they want, and they aren’t going to stay if they can find the workforce they need. 

You can just imagine what will happen when the baby boomers are retiring and we are wondering who will replace them. 

In the end, we have drawn on the rural population to come to the city. Now the rural areas are fairly decimated. So immigration has to come into the mix. 

It is a necessity, and to the extent we can get out in front of it by welcoming, that will help. Coming together to make recommendations will give us a better footing in that regard. Immigration is never the answer; it is part of the answer. 

What is nice now is so many people are recognizing the issue and saying “We really do have to deal with this.”