BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – With Lee County experiencing one of the lowest unemployment rates in recent history, area job posting sites are bursting at the seems with good paying jobs.
According to Carolyn Farley, Operations Director of the Burlington IowaWORKS office, the unemployment rate reflects full employment. She said Lee County’s rate at the end of May was 3.2%.
“Really, anything below 4 percent is considered full employment,” she said. “While Lee County has one of the higher unemployment rates in the state, and traditionally has, it’s actually low. It’s the lowest I’ve seen since I started tracking things back in 2012.”
The data is reflected in the news that Siemens Wind Blade facility in Fort Madison has replenished most of the roughly 200 positions that were laid off in January by restructuring production lines to allow additional products to be assembled. And even with that replenishment, the firm is looking to add an additional 175 full-time positions and has planned two career fairs on July 25th and 26th.
The first will take place at the Comfort Inn and Suites in Fort Madison on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the second will be at the IowaWORKS Burlington office on Roosevelt.
Another large employer, Scotts Miracle-Gro in Fort Madison, is currently adding 40 full-time year-round positions as part of their recently announced, and underway, expansion project on the city’s west side.
The IowaWORKS job search site, under a search for just Lee County, showed 118 listings on Monday afternoon. Dana Millard, Lee County Economic Development Group’s Director of Communication and Marketing, said when you figure in Siemens’ new openings, that amounts to about 250 good, well-paying jobs that need filled.
“There are a lot of companies in southeast Iowa and in Lee County, that have good, well-paying jobs, yet we still have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state,” she said. “The reason for that disconnect is because of the skills that are required for a lot of the open positions.”
But she said the good news is that groups like IowaWORKS and LCEDG are working diligently to help not only fill the positions on an immediate basis, but also on building a workforce for the future.
“We are industry leaders in workforce development programs,” Millard said. “We’ve been recognized by the International Economic Development Council for our efforts and, when talking to our industry leaders, many of them have been investing locally and increasing those job opportunities.”
She said many of the positions are trainable, but workers have to be able to pass a drug test, be willing to show up for work, and put a little initiative into the process.
“If they are willing to do those things, they would have a good, quality job,” she said. “We have careers on a wide spectrum. It could be on-the-job training, leadership skills, or going to a short class to upskill their safety training or a variety of skills.”
The listings currently at the IowaWORKS job search website can be found at www.iowajobs.org and include listings in the industrial, retail, health, and service industries. For a southeast Iowa search, the database is holding more than 1,000 jobs.
Millard said low unemployment rates and lack of skilled workers isn’t a dynamic specific to Lee County.
“It’s not just here in Lee County, but we’ve been working hard to try and connect these positions to employees. We’re exploring different options with IowaWORKS including career fairs and other avenues to increase employee pools, because there is such a great need of quality employees. We’re in it for the long haul,” she said.
Farley said IowaWORKS is also working with other training avenues to help connect employers and potential employees.
“Some things IowaWORKS has been doing is working with community colleges in the state and apprenticeship programs to help with positions that require some training and making that a good option for people,” she said. “We’ll do everything in our power to help them fill those positions at Siemens, or any other employer for that matter.”
She said IowaWORKS also fully supports the Gov. Kim Reynolds Future Ready Iowa program, which has a goal for 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce to have education or training beyond high school by 2025. As part of that effort, Reynolds also launched an incentive-based apprenticeship “playbook”. The program is a private-public partnership between employers, high schools, and community colleges across the state.
Farley said IowaWORKS has been diligently working in those areas to get the program running, but doesn’t have anyone on the books yet.
‘We’ve been so close to getting some things up and running in Lee County and we’ve had a lot of interest, but when it comes to getting through the whole way, we just haven’t gotten that up and running yet,” she said.
The state will also be holding a series of Future Ready Iowa summits as fall approaches. One of those summits is set for Sept. 25 at Comfort Inn and Suites in Burlington from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“We fully support the Future Ready program,” Farley said. “Anybody coming in our door, we help with career counseling. If they have an interest we look at the demand in that field and if there isn’t the demand we try to do some career counseling and find a labor market for them.”