Economic development president says area is known for quality of its workforce
By BROOKS TAYLOR
Mt. Pleasant News
If they come, do we have the workers, skilled workers and housing?
During a legislative briefing in Mt. Pleasant earlier during the legislative session, questions surfaced on the three topics.
David File, extended learning director at Iowa Wesleyan College and president of the Mt. Pleasant Area Development Commission, said we do have workers, but the remaining two topics are being addressed.
“Iowa and southeast Iowa has been and still is known for value in its workforce,” he began. “The available workers we have are reliable, stable and comparatively more inexpensive than (workers) on the coasts.”
It’s the Midwest values, File said, as the region is known for its work ethic and dedication.
He admitted that there is a skill gap in the region, but that gap is not unique to Iowa or the Midwest as technology in many places is outpacing the training of workers to operate the technology.
“Skills are somewhat of a challenge due to the impact of technology,” he explained. “New technology is creating a need for a new skill set and the adaptability of existing skills. For instance, welding is quite different now than it was 15 years ago. There is more pressure on high schools and community colleges for training of these skills. We don’t so much have a population gap as a skill gap. We need people with skills to do the jobs.”
Businesses and manufacturers are attracted to the Midwest, File noted, because of the lower costs and the work force value the region boasts. However, some jobs remain unfilled in southeast Iowa because of the skill gap.
Education is taking steps to narrow the skill gap. High school sare incorporating STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum into coursework as are community colleges, such as Southeast Community College. Four-year schools, such as Iowa Wesleyan College, are providing training in critical thinking and soft skills, File said.
“It is not too late (to embark on the additions to the curriculum),” he said. “Given the rapid advance on technology and the world economy, it puts pressure on business. It becomes a case of being nimble and flexible.”
Regarding housing, File acknowledged there is a shortage in the area for housing in the price range attractive to permanent workers, namely those who will begin employment about 18 months down the road when construction is completed on the Iowa Fertilizer plant at Wever.
“The housing isn’t so much a problem now, but it will be for permanent employees when the plant becomes operational. There is a shortage (of housing) for workers, earning in the $50,000-$90,000 range,” File noted.
That housing shortage, he said, may be slow to change. The reasons are that nowadays few speculative houses are being built. “It (spec houses) isn’t being done because of overall economic concerns would-be investors and builders have.”
However, the Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission of which File is a board member, is building on region-wide map, if you will, informing would-be employees of the plant about community amenities and housing availability in the area.
Southeast Iowa is saddled with some of the highest unemployment in the state, and File said that ironically part of the reason for that is past success in economic development.
“Early on, we had a large reliance on big manufacturing,” he reflected. “Twenty years ago, Mt. Pleasant was the beacon of success in the region and Iowa with Bluebird, Motorola, Metromail and other manufacturers. With the loss of those manufacturers, we are flushing more people to the unemployment ranks than there are jobs to absorb them.
“In the last five to eight years, the economic downturn and the pressure of an international workforce, large employers are fewer and farther between and the competition is greater,” File remarked. High unemployment, unfortunately, is a persistent malady this region has.”
That has led to somewhat a shift in economic development recruitment strategy. No longer are economic developers swinging for the fences. In today’s market, singles and doubles are more than acceptable.
“Ten years ago, the emphasis was on large manufacturers, transporters and distributors,” he said, “and while we still get and act on those leads, we are getting more leads from smaller businesses.” He defined smaller businesses as 25-50 workers, quickly adding that in many cases, technology is reducing the workforce needed in plants and industry.
Continuing on that thought, File said he is pleased with what is happening in Mt. Pleasant, noting that there has been some “shifting of the assets. It used to be that the economic development commission handled the large industrial and manufacturing plants and the Chamber (of Commerce) took care of the small businesses. Now those are overlapping. While we are still looking at recruiting businesses, we also are addressing resources needed turning some small businesses into medium-size businesses. We are helping them to bring in more revenues.
“One of the misnomers I’ve heard is that the economic development commission is turning its attention to recruiting small business. Sometimes, small business employees contribute to the local economy more than large businesses. Just because we celebrate small businesses doesn’t mean we aren’t working on attracting somebody to fill the Bluebird building,” he said.
Although there are parts of the county that have better climate and more picturesque surroundings, there remains one constant in southeast Iowa — the good employee — that other regions don’t have. “Companies still like Midwest workers, the quality of workers we have here is notable,’ he concluded.