Iowa doesn’t have enough workers to fill open positions that are needed across all industries. That was one of the primary messages shared during the Iowa Business Council’s Vision to Vitality panel discussion Wednesday.

The hourlong conversation, held virtually, was hosted by Joe Murphy, the Iowa Business Council’s executive director. It featured Mike Tousley, executive vice president and general manager of the Weitz Co., Clive Mayor Scott Cirksena, Clive Behavioral Health CEO Mary Sparks Thompson, and Mark VanderLinden, chief financial officer for Clive Behavioral Health, as panelists.

Murphy gave an overview of the Business Council’s Competitive Dashboard and first-quarter outlook reports, and discussed this week’s U.S. Census release, which showed Iowa’s population grew to about 3.2 million 2020, a 4.7% increase from 2010. Although Iowa saw growth in its population, it trailed the national average of 7.4%.

According to Murphy, the IBC’s Competitive Dashboard showed that Iowa’s population has become stagnant, showing a five-year population growth rate of 1.1%, which Murphy said “is not a good spot to be in.”

“It’s very concerning for us as we think about the future of the state and the future economic opportunities that the state will afford,” Murphy said.

That flat growth in the state’s population makes it difficult for companies in Iowa to increase their workforce, and for Iowa to become a more inclusive and welcoming state, he said.

“It's impossible for Iowa companies to create jobs,” Murphy said. “We're finding that a number of our companies, in order to remain competitive in a global economy, are having to reach beyond Iowa's borders and to attract talent in states to supplement our efforts here in Iowa. Those are business decisions that companies are making every single day, and it's important for all of us to meet the challenge from a population perspective and really try to move forward in having Iowa as the most welcoming and inclusive place as possible.”

Concern about the state’s population carried over into the panel discussion.

Here are some of the highlights:

Workforce shortage
Tousley: “We are certainly facing a shortage of skilled workers in the building trades. This is not a new issue. We have been battling this issue for well over a decade as the building trades have continued to age and new people coming into the industry has continued to lag behind those that are retiring.” Despite efforts to attract new workers, like the Skills Academy program at Des Moines Public Schools' Central Campus, internships, partnerships with labor groups and trade shows, the shortage continues to persist, he said. “I think it goes back to … our population is just not big enough to solve this issue that we're all facing."

VanderLinden: “With our industry we have a shortage of nursing staff. That’s been an ongoing challenge for many years. We have an aging nursing population that’s being replaced by a fewer and fewer number of nurses.” Clive Behavioral Health is reaching out to nursing programs statewide to bring students in to learn about what the center is about in hopes of attracting them after graduation. “When we can get students in as nursing students and start to show them there’s differences between acute care and behavioral health care, it gives them a chance to specialize and really start to feed into behavioral health.” He said Clive Behavioral Health also looks to career development programs at the high school level to generate that exposure for younger students.

Priorities for Clive for recovery from COVID-19
Cirksena: “First and foremost is we need to continue promoting vaccinations and safe public health practices and not slip backwards. With that in mind, we’re poised for a very strong period of economic growth, and we’re certainly expecting that.” Cirksena also listed three top priorities in Clive. The first is the completion of the city’s new public safety center that will house the police and fire departments at 86th Street and Hickman Road. Second is the District One Revisioning or 86th Street neighborhood project, which looks at improving land use, housing, the trail network, park facilities, stormwater management and flood mitigation in the area east of 86th Street. That includes identifying and moving flood prone properties, both residential and commercial, along University Boulevard. And third is the city’s University Corridor Study, which is being done in conjunction with West Des Moines, to revitalize and reinvest in the area between 86th and 22nd streets west to Interstate 35.

Making Iowa more welcoming
Murphy: “It’s about having those courageous conversations with our member companies, those companies having those conversations with their employees, trying to do everything they can so we can have an understanding of what people are going through, what people are trying to achieve, and being honest with one another, being open to learn and being open to criticism while making significant change. We view DEI initiatives as a key measure of corporate success and responsibility. No one is perfect in this space. Iowa has a long way to go, but I think you’ll see Iowa Business Council members stepping up, making those connections and really leading in this space within their companies.”

Affordable Housing
Cirksena: “Affordable housing is always a question. We have a fairly decent spread of levels of housing costs … but obviously once you cross the interstate that changes pretty dramatically for us. Because we’re a landlocked community we have limited opportunities to build. A lot of opportunities for affordable housing is in the infill areas, which we have plenty of, so those are going to be good opportunities for us. Are they underway now, they’re not. But we believe they will be as we look at redevelopment.”