BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Despite unemployment rates dropping across the country, Lee County continues to have one of the highest rates in the state, yet staffing agencies in the area have more than 300 local job openings.
Dennis Fraise from the Lee County Economic Development said the most recent numbers for unemployment are from September where the U.S. rate was 3.7%, and Lee County is right there at 3.7%.
“A year ago that number was 5.6%. Iowa is currently at 2.5% and in the region Des Moines County is 2.8%, Henry County is 2.1% and Louisa County is 2.3%,” Fraise said.
“So the question becomes why do we chronically have the highest unemployment rates, if not the highest.”
He said there are a couple of reasons for that and some of the issues can be traced to generational poverty and the culture that creates.
“That’s why we’re working so hard on the Bridges out of Poverty program,” he said, “This is not a hand out, but a hand up. If we can work with them and break that cycle, it’s a win for Lee County. Everything else is just a numbers game.
He said another issues is rural Iowa’s declining population.
Janet Smith, the regional manager for Full-Team Staffing in Fort Madison, looks at the problem from the other side and said unemployment is too low and there aren’t enough people to fill the jobs.
She said her numbers show Lee County at 2.75% unemployment rate and she said with the number of people who would be considered “unemployable”, that really represents very little unemployment.
Smith said Full-Team has filled close to 60 positions this year and currently has 38 openings in the Fort Madison office.
“It’s not a high unemployment rate…it’s low,” Smith said. “This is the lowest they’ve been in 18 years. There’s just not enough people to fill the positions. We have more jobs and more demand. And that’s just not here, it’s in a lot places that are experiencing the same thing.”
Smith said transportation is a big issue because a lot of people that can do temporary or temp to full-time positions don’t have reliable transportation. She said SEIBUS, used to help get workers to job sites, but they don’t do that anymore so Full-Team is actually doing some van-pooling to help people get to work,
Smith also heralded the work of Bridges Out of Poverty and its effort to help improve soft skills that help keep people employed.
“There are those generational hurdles. I go to a lot of our regional meetings and we hear a lot about that. I would like to be part of the poverty trainings because there’s some bigger societal issues where people don’t know how to live differently,” Smith said.
She also said something needs to be done with pulling driver’s licenses in rural areas. She said some licenses need to be revoked for failure to pay child support or fines, but without a driver’s license employees have a hard time getting to work, or they drive with their license revoked and end up getting caught and fined or jailed.
“How are they supposed to get to work? So, they drive anyway, and then get another fine or jail time, it’s just a rough circle.”
Fraise said the four-county region of Lee, Des Moines, Louisa, and Henry counties have a combined 1,085 current jobs on the Iowa Works job site.
Angela King, Branch manager at Team Staffing in Fort Madison said the company’s Fort Madison branch alone has more than 110 current openings. She said it’s been difficult to get the positions filled, even though applications can now be done through social media and the website.
“It’s just a struggle. We’re trying so hard to place for so many in the area. We have a lot of openings,” King said.
She said pulling the Workforce Development office has contributed to the problems.
“I don’t think it helps that we they took Workforce Development out of our county. When we’re still dealing with higher unemployment rates than others, I don’t understand why they would pull that service out of here,” King said,
She said there is also a misconception that all the positions are just temporary.
“A lot of what we hire for is seasonal, but that works for some people. But a lot of the positions are hire-on positions as well, or provide an option to go full-time if the employee has demonstrated good work habits while temporary. Some is seasonal, but that fits another dynamic of people who are looking for that seasonal work.”
She said the temp-to -hire firm also provides temporary benefits to employees who sign on, including health, dental, and vision. The company also offers online and social media links to current jobs and application processes.I think one misconception people have, is that a lot of companies we work with do hire on. It’s not temp for ever.
She said she has 110 openings in the Fort Madison, but said all three branches including Mt. Pleasant and Burlington have about 250 jobs available. King said applicants can even go to links on their site and through social media sites to apply from their computer or phone or Facebook page.
King said as a staffing agency, Team Staffing does offer insurance plans for health, dental, and vision for temporary staffing, with a wide range of starting pay and shifts. She said many of the positions hire on after a good temporary work record and others have options or potential to become regular positions.
Jaime Brecount, branch manager at WorkSource Staffing in Fort Madison, said her office has about 25 openings in Fort Madison as of last week.
“We are having a little struggle. and have to work harder in finding people,” Brecount said. “There’s a disconnect of what we have available and the pool of people we have to place. Either they lack skills or motivation, or whatever. There are a lot of aspects to that, but I just say they are unemployable right now.”
She said matching the jobs to what is available right now is difficult. She too said transportation is an issue.
“We have someone we can bring on, but they won’t drive 45 minutes for a job that pays $10/hour. So we’re doing a lot of matching the pool to the jobs. There are lot of hiccups to that and we see that more in our industry than most do.”
“There are more jobs than there are people. It’s been more of a struggle keeping them. We can find them and place them but we can’t keep them. They job hop because people are jumping to a job .50 higher. People see that right in front of them and they don’t look at long-term. Even though that may be temporary.
Fraise said it’s hard to point to one issue that’s keeping the positions from being filled.
“It’s hard to identify and paint with that broad brush. Employers point to soft skill issues. Showing up on time, things like that that we take for granted. Drug testing their employees also helps pull from the labor pool. He said Bridges, as the program grows, should help resolve some of those issues.
“There’s no easy fix here with societal issues. Generational poverty is a tough cycle to break. Sometimes the approach that may seem like common sense, doesn’t work for others and brilliance of that program is that it has identified that.”