Iowa Business 'Dashboard' Prizes Diversity, Test Scores, Employers Say

March 8, 2020

The Courier: PAT KINNEY 

The Cedar Valley’s racial and ethnic diversity areas are an asset to the region and the state in attracting and retaining a qualified workforce, a Deere executive representing a statewide business organization said in its annual review of the state’s overall economic competitiveness.

“That’s a strength in the greater Waterloo-Cedar Falls area,” said Raj Kalathur, president and chief information officer for John Deere Financial in Johnston and a member of the Iowa Business Council, in a discussion of the results of the council’s annual analysis of the competitiveness of Iowa’s workforce.

The data, called “Iowa’s Competitive Dashboard,“ is used by the council, made up of Iowa’s 23 largest employers, in determining steps to cultivate a competitive workforce to attract and retain business in the state.

The state was rated as “poor” in demographics and diversity on the “dashboard” analysis. But that isn’t true for Waterloo-Cedar Falls and the larger Cedar Valley region, with Waterloo had the highest percentage African American population in the state and a wide variety of ethnic groups which have made their way to the metro area over the past quarter-century, including Bosnians, Latinos, Congolese and Burmese among others in addition to the black population indigenous to the community since the 1910s.

“We want to develop a workforce that’s representative of our communities” and vice versa, Kalathur said. And employers are working with local schools and other resources to bring the skill levels of the workforce up to the skill levels of the jobs required.

The IBC, whose members employ about 163,000 Iowans, was formed in 1985 during that decade’s farm crisis to shore up the state’s economy during the downturn, council director Joe Murphy said. It has compiled figures for the “competitive dashboard” since 2011.

“We’re pretty excited about the findings of the report,” Murphy said.

Among the dashboard findings:

Iowa has almost full employment, but consequently, “that means there’s a shortage of available workers,” Murphy said, given the large portion of its labor force currently employed and a consistently low unemployment rate — around 3% for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls metropolitan statistical area.

“The state ranks high in aptitude,” Murphy said. Iowa is tied for first in the nation with South Dakota for composite scores in the American College Test, or ACT, college entrance exams. The state also ranks high in the number of people who have had some form of education past high school. On the downside, the survey reported some weaknesses in reading and math capabilities among eighth-graders within the state, based on national state-by-state studies.

“Our state is in a very strong financial position overall,” Murphy said, despite, geopolitical and trade concerns, with median household income up by about $1,400 over the prior year.

While Iowa’s population growth trails the nation, the rate of “out-migration” of young people leaving the state for employment has declined by nearly 30%. The group has a goal of increasing Iowa’s net migration by 100,000 by 2025.

Murphy said the Iowa Business Council is using the “competitive dashboard” data as supporting arguments for promoting its legislative agenda in the Iowa Legislature. That includes promoting housing tax credit programs with the Iowa Finance Authority and increased investment in the State Housing Trust Fund.

Deere is committed to helping improve that housing stock with the volunteer labor of its own employees, Kalathur said, with the goal of building 100 homes in 100 weeks, supporting the efforts of Habitat for Humanity organizations. He said Deere’s employees and retirees statewide compose a considerable volunteer labor corps.

Murphy also said the business council is promoting comprehensive immigration reform policies to address the workforce issue, in addition to retaining more young people in the state.

Kalathur also said the workforce skills needed are wide and varied, from welders and computerized numerical control (CNC) machine operators to cybersecurity. Employers want to fill those Iowa jobs with Iowans first, he said, working with schools at all levels to teach the skills those jobs require.

The council also is promoting business-friendly tax policies and child care initiatives, Murphy said.

In addition to Deere, other Iowa Business Council member firms and organizations with a presence in Northeast Iowa include MidAmerican Energy, MercyOne, Hy-Vee, Fareway, UnityPoint Health, and the Iowa Bankers Association.

Read the full article here.


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