Dubuque County leaders hope for economic rebound after hitting bottom

June 11, 2020

Dubuque County leaders hope for economic rebound after hitting bottom
BY THOMAS J. BARTON thomas.barton@thmedia.com

Dubuque’s economic recovery from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is a bit of a good-news-bad-news situation that will weigh heavily on consumer confidence and workforce training, according to area business leaders.

“The good news is we do believe, economically, in terms of job loss and unemployment that we have hit bottom,” said Kristin Dietzel, vice president of workforce solutions at Greater Dubuque Development Corp. “However, the bad news is the bottom was pretty deep and ugly."

The Iowa Business Council held its first virtual Vision to Vitality forum of the year with Dubuque community and business leaders on Wednesday.

Panelists from IBC, GDDC, Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, Alliant Energy and Northeast Iowa Community College discussed the local economic impact of the pandemic, barriers and solutions to workforce development efforts, Dubuque’s past successes in confronting challenges and its needs for recovery.

From mid-March through the end of May, a total of 12,900 unemployment claims were filed within Dubuque County. Claims filed in the month of April alone exceeded those filed in all of 2019.

April’s unemployment rate stood at 12.7%, about 5 percentage points higher than was seen during the peak of the last recession.

“It’s really been a pretty quick and devastating impact in terms of job loss,” Dietzel said. “We lost about 8,600 jobs for our county, which represents about 16 years of growth.”

Sectors most impacted included food service, hospitality, retail and health care, followed by manufacturing layoffs in May as a recession took hold due to a disruption in supply chains and reductions in orders.

“The good news is we’re starting to see a rebound,” Dietzel said.

New claims for the first week of June were down significantly, and continued claims for those already on unemployment have started to decline, she said, “showing individuals are starting to come back to the workforce.”

“Those businesses will come back in the order they were impacted,” Dietzel said. “We expect, of course, to see those manufacturing jobs probably come back slower    We do expect the climb back to be much slower than the
fall down.”

Key to the region’s economic recovery will be a return of consumer confidence, panelists said.

“I really think about how we get these small businesses back on their feet and how to get those folks employed,” said Terry Kouba, president of Interstate Power & Light Co. and senior vice president of Alliant Energy. “.    And
how do we do that safely and keep those folks as healthy as possible?”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday announced that capacity restrictions for Iowa businesses soon will be eliminated.
As of 8 a.m. Friday, June 12, businesses such as bars, restaurants, theaters and retail locations no longer will be required to limit their occupancy to 50% of their standard capacity, a mandate that has been in place since those operations began reopening last month.

According to U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 79% of U.S. businesses have partially or fully opened.

And just as important as safety for returning workers is community perception of safety, in which community members feel comfortable patronizing reopened businesses, said Molly Grover, president and CEO of Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce.

“How do we make sure our consumers have confidence, our clients and customers have confidence, and that our employees feel safe?” Grover asked. “That was by far and away the highest answer in terms of biggest challenge,” according to a survey of chamber members.

Grover said the chamber is working to share information with its members on best practices for reopening and messaging to employees, consumers and customers.

Adding to that challenge is the lack of a comprehensive testing program locally, in which people would be able to get a test if they have symptoms.

“That will change the reality and it will change the actions that employers can implement to keep safe-at-work practices,” Dietzel said. “The ability of on-demand testing has to be part of that priority.”

Wendy Mihm-Herold, vice president of business and community solutions at Northeast Iowa Community College, said education, too, will be a top priority for Dubuque’s recovery.

“It’s about upskilling those individuals who are currently employed, as well as getting those large number of individuals who have been laid off into (skilled positions) that are going to help them in our economy,” she said. “One of the things the CARES Act hasn’t addressed is funding for the upskilling in education.    I feel that is critical
to our recovery.”

Reynolds announced last week she intends to set aside $85 million out of the $1.25 billion the state has received in federal coronavirus relief funds for workforce initiatives, including upskilling.

“Higher education has been really crippled and deeply impacted by the pandemic,” Dietzel said. “They are what sets us apart from other communities. Businesses follow workforce, and workforce is trained through education. So we have to do everything we can to continue to support and collaborate with not only our community college but our private education partners.”

Read the full article here.


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