Solutions for Iowa's Evolving Workforce

April 8, 2022 | Solutions for Iowa's Evolving Workforce GiGi Wood,

their diligence, strong work ethic and smart problem-solving skills. They are the backbone of the state’s many businesses and have a sense of pride in their work. Many of the state’s workers have long tenures at their employers, which helps improve business performance. 

When it comes to creating a stronger business future for Iowa, three components go together: growing the workforce, creating a plan for improved child care and expanding the manufacturing sector. Iowa government and business leaders are taking these challenges on through a variety of incentives, policies and programs. Public and private sectors are overcoming these challenges through several efforts. 

Three ongoing, major initiatives designed to attract and retain workers in Iowa are the This Is Iowa campaign, the Child Care Task Force and Manufacturing 4.0. Each program addresses a unique subsection of the overall drive to build business and industry. This Is Iowa is a marketing campaign designed to draw attention and awareness to state attractions and reasons for living in Iowa. The Child Care Task Force is an effort started by Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office that aims to allow more parents to return to the workforce by providing affordable and accessible child care options. Manufacturing 4.0 offers business support, as well as education and resources, to help boost the industry sector.

These issues are important because there are more than 80,000 job openings throughout the state. Although that’s a lot of vacancies, the number of people joining the workforce is steadily increasing. 

“The signs are good that the economy’s moving in the right direction, the workforce is moving in the right direction,” said Beth Townsend, director of the Iowa Department of Workforce Development.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Iowa's unemployment rate in February was at 3.5%, marking the fourth consecutive month that Iowa has experienced growth in the number of jobs.

“We’re seeing some movement in a positive direction in terms of people getting back to work,” Townsend said.

Growing the Workforce

State leaders are acting on several initiatives to increase the number workers in the labor pool. The This Is Iowa campaign is one of those efforts.

“Research shows that when people visit a place and they have an incredible experience, it crosses their mind that they could see themselves and their families living there,” said Debi Durham, Executive Director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, IEDA paused its state marketing campaigns, as so few people were traveling. Instead, it focused its efforts on polling people on how their perspectives are changing about where they live. The research showed that the pandemic altered the way a lot of people in their 30s and 40s think about where they live. Those who are open to moving to Iowa want to know about affordability, the job market and outdoor recreation.

“We asked those people, ‘What do you think of Iowa?’” Durham said. “And they answered, ‘We don’t think about you at all.’ Which I can tell you, from a marketing perspective, is not a bad place to be. It takes a lot more money to rebrand something negative than to introduce something new to someone.”

IEDA has launched the campaign in target markets and is using social media and influencers to get people to visit the site, Durham said the quality-of-life initiatives taken on by cities like Dubuque, which is also actively working to increase jobs in its community, are seeing results; Dubuque gained 1,500 new jobs in December. Durham also said she expects Reynolds’ flat-rate income tax will attract new residents.

Another effort is the Reemployment Case Management program. Launched in January by Iowa Workforce Development, the program offers additional job search assistance to newly unemployed Iowans. Job seekers are paired with career navigators, who help them find a new career faster than they might on their own. In the first nine weeks of the program, career navigators held more than 5,000 meetings with unemployed Iowans, and 940 found jobs.

“Most of the success stories are people who had been on unemployment for four weeks,” Townsend said. “We’re helping people find the career they want to have, not just the next paying job. So we’re doing things like that, that I think are going to make a big difference in terms of getting more people back to work faster.”

Home Base Iowa is an initiative where military veterans are matched with career navigators to help them polish resumes, find jobs and navigate the application and interview processes.

“The beauty of having additional career navigators is veterans get one-on-one service,” she said. “If you want to move to Texas or Florida, they have lots of resources for veterans, but they don’t have somebody who’s going to take you by the hand and say, ‘Let me introduce you to this employer.’”

Home Base communities offer tax incentives to veterans who choose to move to those towns. More than 100 Iowa communities offer the program. For a list, visit

Private Partnerships and Efforts

Workforce recruitment and retention isn’t a new issue to state leaders and it isn’t a new issue for industry, or groups like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI). 

“ABI members came to us almost 10 years ago to talk about the need to educate students and parents about the opportunities for careers in manufacturing,” said Nicole Crain, ABI’s executive vice president.

In response, ABI created Elevate Advanced Manufacturing to raise awareness of manufacturing opportunities throughout the state. ABI’s public policy efforts have also centered on workforce and supporting workforce legislation for many years, she said.

ABI supports many state programs designed to upskill and increase the number of workers in Iowa, such as Future Ready, the Employer Innovation Fund, Manufacturing 4.0 and more.

“Future Ready Iowa has made a big difference in getting Iowans upskilled. The Employer Innovation Fund has allowed small and large businesses to come up with creative ways to recruit/retain workers,” Crain said. “Manufacturing 4.0 and Registered Apprenticeships have also helped Iowa companies invest in their equipment and people. We are grateful for the partnerships with Iowa Workforce Development and Iowa Economic Development Authority. They have been intentional about including businesses of all sizes and in all areas of the state in the development of the programs.”

Recruiting workers to the state will require the kind of splash This Is Iowa hopes to make, Crain said.

“We need to get more people to see Iowa as a destination place,” she said. “IEDA’s focus on This is Iowa campaign, the tax policy changes and the governor’s response to the State of the Union have all helped raise Iowa’s visibility. The more we can talk about the great things happening in Iowa, the more people will think about choosing our state to work, live and play.”

ABI members have been active in their communities to help recruit and retain workers and residents to their communities.

“ABI members are opening up their doors to students and families at a young age to tour, they are attending college fairs, they are working with refugee communities and social service organizations to support wraparound services, they are offering on-site child care, increasing wages and benefits,” Crain said. “Businesses are doing a better job talking about the benefits of working for their company, whether in manufacturing or financial services.”

One of Iowa’s largest employers, Principal Financial Group, has developed a unique strategy of its own to attract and retain workers.

According to Melissa Higgins, senior communications specialist at Principal, the company switched from a paid time off (PTO) to a flexible time off (FTO) policy several years ago, and it continues to be a very popular benefit for employees. Exempt employees (fulltime and part-time who work at least 20 hours per week) can use FTO for personal reasons. They don’t accrue time off, there’s no set number of days, and it’s not tracked.

“At Principal, we focus on providing an environment where employees feel meaningful connection to the work they are doing, see advancement potential and feel valued for their contributions,” Higgins said. “We offer comprehensive compensation and benefits packages because ensuring the financial security, health and wellness of our people is core to how we attract and retain the best talent. We’re also embracing more workplace flexibility than ever before, which is an attractive recruitment tool for Iowa employees and beyond.”

Higgins said Principal encourages other employers in Iowa to adopt the policy, as well.

“We know how important it is for our employees to take time away from work, so we’ve designed our FTO policies to give employees the flexibility they need to prioritize rest, relaxation, time with family, personal commitments and caring for themselves and family members, when necessary,” she said. “We encourage leaders to model smart use of FTO and to create an atmosphere where employees feel empowered to take the time they need and deserve.”

Another Iowa employer is using new strategies to recruit and retain workers. Sukup Manufacturing in Sheffield, just south of Mason City, has made scheduling changes and improved communication for its workers.

“Sukup is fortunate to employ a wide range of generations, all valuing different aspects of employment differently,” said Emily Schmitt, chief administrative officer and general counsel of Sukup and part of the third generation of the family leading the business. “With that in mind, we had to significantly reduce required Saturdays, create more flexibility in shift schedules and increase communication channels to employees. We see a lot of trends towards transparency, part-time schedules and increasing resources that are translated in other languages.”

Sukup is the largest family-owned, full-line grain drying and storage equipment manufacturer in the United States and employs more than 600 workers. The company takes an active role in its community, and beyond. Sukup recently helped three dozen employees of its sister company, Grain House Co., in Ukraine, escape to Denmark, driving in caravans overnight.

“Over the years, Sukup has had a strong reputation with longstanding (or tenured) employees,” she said. “We are the largest employer in north central Iowa and with the current workforce challenges, we have had to be creative with retention strategies.”

To help retain residents, she suggested that state and business leaders consider opening more opportunities that typically go to urban workers, to rural applicants. For example, she suggested adapting some state positions to allow remote applicants and to open the Des Moines Business Record’s Forty Under 40 to rural communities.

“Engage and include rural companies and communities in large urban initiatives like the Business Record’s Forty Under 40,” Schmitt said. “I was fortunate to be selected. However, I am also fortunate to be heavily engaged in the Des Moines-area community. Not all rural businesses have that opportunity.”

Improving Child Care Accessibility

If the pandemic taught the business community anything, it taught the importance of affordable and accessible child care. Without it, many parents are forced to stay home to care for their children instead of working at a company. This can have a severe impact on families that need more income and companies that need skilled workers.

During the past two years, the state has invested $480 million to support child care, according to Townsend. In January, the state issued $37 million in child care grants that will create 5,200 new child care slots across the state. The money will help pay for 108 projects in 72 communities with another $9.7 million in private investment.

“I’ve gotten to make some of those calls to the applicants to tell them what they’ve been awarded and just the shouts and screams and tears of joy and ‘You are changing child care in southeast Iowa for the next generation’ kind of responses to these grants,” Townsend said.

Sukup’s Schmitt serves as chair of the state’s Child Care Task Force, which was created to address the child care shortage.

“Through 100 days, 51 meetings and two town halls, we developed a set of recommendations aimed at finding solutions to improve the child care ecosystem,” she said. “The availability of child care is essential to a successful work-life balance and allowing employees to bring their talents and skills to Iowa businesses. The governor and task force understand children are our future, and the care they receive is one of the most important parts of the available workforce puzzle.”

The most beneficial efforts focus on reducing the cost of child care and creating long-term solutions, Schmitt said.

“One recommendation is implementing a shared services model at the government level, where the state takes on some burdens instead of the center, including payroll, background checks, etc.,” she said. “These afford the centers lower costs, but also frees up workforce to focus on their main focus, child care. The other recommendation that can have multiple ripples is partnering with the IEDA on vacant school rehabilitation. These schools already have needed resources such as cafeterias, kitchens, playgrounds, and may offer other leverage such as spaces for housing, as well.”

Each community is different and has varying child care needs, such as distance between homes and schools. 

“It is up to the community to assess their needs and how to best address it,” Schmitt said. “We have seen trends indicate employees preferring earlier start times, which means child care is needed earlier, too. Our community also faces a bus driver and teacher shortage and we’re focusing on child cares connected to the school system so it can assist all three needs.”

Schmitt recommends businesses become engaged with their community’s child care needs.

“Assess what business choices you might be making that affect those child care needs, regardless of business size,” she said. “It takes all of us to help achieve change on a need that spreads across all industries, educational fronts and enables better workforce function. If you truly want to make a change, I recommend starting by reading the report.”

The task force’s report is available here.

Manufacturing 4.0

Iowa’s largest business sector is manufacturing, accounting for 18% of the state’s gross domestic product (GDP), making Iowa seventh in the nation for manufacturing GDP. Several years ago, IEDA’s Iowa Innovation Council, consisting of thought leaders from various industries throughout the state, decided state policies should prioritize the manufacturing sector.

“Manufacturing is extremely important to our economy and wealth creation,” Durham said. “We have more job openings than we have people to fill them.”

Many Iowa companies are operating at 70% to 80% of needed workforce and simply not advertising all their openings, she said. With the number of retirements increasing nationally, Iowa leaders decided to take action to help stem that tide. IEDA commissioned an in-depth analysis of the industry to help determine next steps. The program is focused on bringing more advanced technology to independently owned manufacturing companies, to help them become more efficient. The goal is to implement technologies that will reduce the number of tedious and mundane tasks for employees to complete, freeing them up to for more sophisticated work.

“We’re helping small manufacturers within the supply chain with two to 75 employees,” she said.

Grants up to $75,000 have been used by manufacturers to buy and implement new technologies to help them with processes such as inventory, or to buy equipment. The money is tracked and the productivity results are recorded as part of the program.

“There was one company that used the money to buy equipment and they predicted it would be a 12% increase in productivity; within a month of running the equipment they had a 35% increase in productivity,” Durham said. “I think you’re really going to see Iowa lead the way when we have the metrics around this adoption.”

ABI’s Crain said Manufacturing 4.0 plays an important role in keeping small manufacturers in their rural Iowa towns. The state of Iowa is encouraging employer investments in child care through a public-private partnership that supports businesses interested in providing a child care benefit for employees. Iowa also is the first to recognize businesses statewide with family-friendly policies.

“The opportunities to invest in equipment and software sooner to modernize some facilities will allow those companies to upskill existing employees and stay operational,” she said.

Information on Iowa’s Manufacturing 4.0 plan can be found at