BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
MONTROSE – With Lee County’s current unemployment rate at 4.1, county economic officials still say the area’s workforce, or lack thereof, is still a major challenge to employers.
The Lee County Economic Development Group gave a presentation to the Lee County Board of Supervisors at a workshop Tuesday following the board’s regular meeting.
Joe Steil, the CEO of LCEDG, told the board that even at that 4.1 percent, Lee County is still the poster child of unemployment in the state.
Supervisor Don Hunold asked him at that rate, the county still faces an obstacle when considering a lot of hiring is one person already employed going to another position at another place.
“It’s more of an ‘I think I’ll go try that for a while,’,” Hunold said. “We’re taking from one place to another and that’s not good for business either, how do we overcome that?”
Steil said on the surface it would look like Lee County should be targeted by industry because of the available labor, but he said the numbers need to be examined more carefully.
“With the unemployment rate at 4.1% one has to recognize we’re still the highest in the state of Iowa. I guess I look at it as if they are strictly relating that 4.1 to having employees available we should be the primary target in Iowa,” he said.
“The key question is and (LCEDG COO) Dennis (Fraise) and I have talked through this many times, but how does the state go through their equation process to come up with numbers. There is a portion of the world out there not counted in those numbers. Those that have fallen off unemployment, haven’t signed up, or are just tired of looking. How big of a factor is that that could create potential employees,” Steil said.
“We’ve shown great progress, but we still show as the poster child for unemployment in the state, and that’s where we’re positioned. We try to drive that number down, but we’re focused on the trained and trainable people that make the difference.”
He said many of the programs LCEDG has helped jump start with the local schools, even down to LEGO Robotics with the younger students, have a focus of understanding the soft skills of a job, such as being on time, dressing appropriately, and being ready to work when they show up.
“It’s the soft skills. ‘I’ve got a check in my pocket on Friday, so do I really feel like going in on Monday.’ Ok, these folks live it every day. They’ve got a key position on a line or something because there’s not someone to take that seat and the whole line suffers. So that hurts meeting their deadlines and their profits,” Steil said.
Dennis Fraise, COO of LCEDG, said it’s vitally important that the staff keep focusing on training and skills opportunities.
“One of the things they’re looking for in looking to Lee County is things like SCC’s new industrial training center in Keokuk, which is a great asset, and CBIZ in West Burlington also does a great job. You have the training in place and it’s important that we spend time on those things.”
Steil said bringing education officials from multiple levels together with economic and industrial leaders is imperative right now.
“Taking education officials to the same table and having them talk the same language is important. We took industry leaders to school and school teachers and guidance counselors to industry, and clearly what we walked away with was that the dots weren’t connecting. Educators were assuming what industry needed and they weren’t correct,” Steil said.
He also said SCC is going to be coming out with new programming that addresses today’s environment and SCC’s President Dr. Michael Ash is working on curriculums based on a list of disciplines that area industries are looking for.
LCEDG board member Matt Morris said the communication between the LCEDG and industry is better than it’s been in several years.
“Right now the communication with existing industry I think is the best it’s been in years,” Morris said. With the various events they do and the meetings where they bring educators and industry together and that’s just been phenomenal. We all get really excited about the pictures of the hard hats and shovels but at the end of the day it’s the existing industries where we see most of our growth and, if were not giving them what they want, what’s to say they keep making investments in the county,” Morris said.
Rick Larkin said as he travels around the state he’s seeing the trend of a lack of skilled workforce throughout the state.
“In my travels around Iowa, you look at the newspaper and there are a lot of communities talking about workforce development. This is not something that’s just happened in Lee County and the Midwest, this is all over the country finding skilled workers. This group predicted 10 years ago we were going to have a labor shortage. I’m glad to see this work and it will pay a dividend in the future,’ Larkin said.