Ethan Anderson had been living in Iowa for a matter of weeks when he spotted an old family friend — a cousin-in-law as they refer to each other — from across the crowd at a holiday youth baseball tournament in Iowa City in December. It was random.
“How did you even recognize me? We haven’t seen each other for 20 years,” Kate Evans recalled saying.
They had only met a handful of times growing up, but their families were close, and the resemblance was a dead giveaway, Anderson said.
The surprise encounter inspired a full-flung, welcome-to-the-area brunch at Evans’ home in Cedar Rapids a couple of weeks later. It was packed: Anderson, his wife, Courtney, and their five kids; Evans, her husband, Matt, and their two kids; and Leighton and Sarah Smith and their three children. Leighton Smith is a local “connector,” who, among other things, helped start the Wingman program to help newcomers plug into the area. More on that later.
The families are all at similar points in life — parents in their mid-30s to early 40s with children, ages 1 to 11. Evans and Anderson grew up in the Midwest — Evans in Cedar Rapids and Anderson in southern Minnesota — and left for school and work, only to return years later for job opportunities and to raise families in the familiar surroundings of the Midwest.
These are considered success stories. Building an ample workforce is one of the biggest challenges facing an aging, slow-growth state in a shrinking region with an optics problem: Too cold. Too flat. Not diverse. There’s not much happening. It’s nothing but farm fields and gravel roads.
3.8 percent unemployment
2.75 percent population growth
92 percent white
U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data
It remains an uphill battle, but successes have come from a multiangled approach — from employers and economic development leaders to civic and state efforts — all aimed at wooing younger professionals to come and stay here.
Easier said than done.
“When you talk about workforce, people decide where they want to live and then find a job,” said Allison Antes, a workforce strategist at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “The biggest barrier of recruitment is the perception of what Iowa is.”
Antes and the Economic Alliance have formally formed a joint venture with Iowa City Area Development Group to address workforce and business recruitment. The 24- to 44-age range is their target market to attract, and Corridor alumni are the low-hanging fruit because they already know the Corridor, she said.
Back at the brunch, the adults were catching up while basketball played on the living room television and kids sang karaoke.
An old mentor, E. Dale Abel, a doctor directing the Diabetes Research Center at University of Iowa, recruited Anderson from Greenville, N.C., to the College of Pharmacy to run his own research lab studying mitochondria and heart disease. The Andersons had thought about moving back for family and Midwestern values but had never paid much notice east of Des Moines and the Interstate 35 corridor. As he and Courtney started to research the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area, they found more than expected — good schools, arts and culture, and safe communities. So they pulled the trigger.
Matt Evans, a former basketball standout, had been climbing the ladder in intercollegiate athletics administration at the University of Denver when he and Kate did some soul-searching nine years ago. They decided they’d have a better quality of life in Iowa. Matt changed careers to insurance at TrueNorth Co. where he’ll have flexibility to attend his children’s activities as they grow up.
“We looked back at our childhood, and we loved it here,” Kate said.
Leighton Smith — who grew up in Holstein, left for Chicago, came back for school at University of Iowa, and stayed — added, “We may not win on touristy stuff, but one layer down, we have a really good local life.”
Getting that message out is the trick. Iowa’s workforce supply barely treads water. The low 3.8 percent unemployment rate, as of November, and small population of about 3 million limits local hiring availability.
Iowa has been a net exporter of residents domestically, including 3,392 people in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The influx of residents born internationally, 6,336 in 2016, is one of the saving graces for the workforce. Iowa’s population climbed by 83,955 people or just 2.75 percent since the 2010 census. Urban areas, including Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Des Moines, are growing, but two-thirds of Iowa’s 99 counties are shrinking.
Iowa also is getting older. Since 2000, Iowa’s median age has risen from 36 years old to 38, and the 65-and-older crowd now makes up 16 percent of the population compared to 15 percent in 2000, according to Census Bureau data.
“The stereotype is there’s corn everywhere, but I was surprised to find there’s a lot more going on and places to go...I’ve yet to find I’m bored here.”
- Nathan Snyder
New Rockwell Collins employee and Iowa transplant
The Midwest as a region fares worse. College-educated natives in prime employment years — 25 to 65 — are leaving at a greater rate than anywhere else in the nation.
As the senior talent acquisition manager at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Seth Wear knows the workforce supply challenges facing Iowa. His team hires 2,000 to 2,500 employees annually, two-thirds to work in Iowa.
Expanding their “digital footprint” and fine-tuning messaging are key strategies to employ with job candidates. Getting people to respond is one battle and dispelling the “flyover country” stigma is another, he said.
Efforts with two-year and four-year universities to include skills and concepts in curricula that transition to Rockwell careers have paid dividends, he said. An internship program has served as a pipeline to employment, including 70 percent of those eligible who wind up coming back to work. Last summer, the company hosted 500 interns.
“They get in real time the look, see and feel of Cedar Rapids,” he said. “It helps bring them back.”
It’s not just hiring but keeping that is important to Rockwell. Rockwell spends 1.5 to 2 times a person’s salary to replace them when someone leaves, Wear said.
Rockwell recently added ride-sharing services, including an employee van pool, and launched a mobile app called the Rockwell Collins Passport, which identifies key amenities in the area and offers discounts, to help unpackage the area.
Nathan Snyder, 26, moved from Michigan in September for a job as a Rockwell software engineer. He was no stranger to harsh winters — but single without local ties, it was a leap of faith. The job in the aerospace industry was the selling point, he said.
Since arriving, a social group of new Rockwell employees from outside the area have found similar interests. Snyder’s been exploring rock faces at Backbone State Park and Palisades-Kepler State Park, climbing indoors at Coe College, and joining basketball and soccer leagues. Cedar Rapids has seen a variety of changes catering to a younger demographic — new downtown housing, expanded bike trails, bike rentals, new restaurants and night life districts.
“The stereotype is there’s corn everywhere, but I was surprised to find there’s a lot more going on and places to go,” Snyder said. “There’s lots of places to eat and things to do. I’ve yet to find I’m bored here.”
The days of a one-employer career largely are over. For Iowa, showing a career path is an important part of retention.
Last fall, some of the area’s larger employers, including ACT, Pearson and Rockwell Collins, saw layoffs — but within six months most of those people were back to work, said DaLayne Williamson of Iowa City Area Development Group.
While job opportunities can be the catalyst for a move, a more intangible quality of how a new employee or their family fits in the area often decides if someone stays.
“If people don’t feel connected in six months — and it can be the trailing spouse or partner — if they don’t find their thing, they may up and go,” said Kate Moreland, director of collaboration and community relations for ICAD, who works with some 88 trailing spouses.
Moreland collaborated with Leighton Smith on the Wingman project, which was conceived about a year ago during a conversation about brain drain. The project is intentionally community-driven — not by an employer — to help transplants break out of the bubble of their workplace to see what else is here.
“For people who come here for work, we don’t do a good enough job getting them involved in our game of double Dutch,” Smith said of the jump rope game that can be hard to get started but easier once you do. “Our culture is very friendly — we’re Iowa nice — but we don’t employ it in effective way, particularly for minority communities.”
Wingman volunteers create profiles on a website called ICCReatives.com where newcomers, often directed by a human resources staffer at their employer, can search for people with similar interests or backgrounds. They meet for coffee or a cocktail and then identify an activity or two to attend together so the person doesn’t have to go alone.
“We are trying to replicate what would happen if you had a friend of a friend move here,” Smith said. “Getting the first jump in is kind of hard, but soon as you get started, it’s pretty easy. That first touch of welcome is what is needed.”
Sarika Bhakta, who volunteers in the Wingman program and works as a consultant for workplace diversity, said perception can become reality, and for Iowa the perception is it’s not diverse enough and there’s not enough cultural amenities.
Iowa is 92 percent white, according to the latest Census. The influx of residents born internationally, 6,336 in 2016, is one of the counterbalances preventing a population decline in Iowa. The Asian population is the fastest growing, increasing from 1.7 percent in 2010 to 2.4 percent in 2015, but still is a small portion of Iowa’s population.
Bhakta moved to Cedar Rapids as a trailing spouse in 2003 after living in the Quad Cities and Chicago. Of Indian descent, Bhakta noticed the lack cultural offerings: ethnic grocers, tailors, salons specializing in eyebrow threading, places for henna tattoos, unleavened breads or, in the case of her husband, Himanshu, a cricket league.
She didn’t think she’d stay. But then she decided to take control of her circumstances.
She got a job at the Red Cross where she expanded her local network. She helped start the Asian Fest awareness event and a Diwali gift donation program. Her husband even found a local cricket league. Meanwhile, as the population grows, resources are increasing. The Hindu temple even has bought land to expand in Robins.
“I didn’t want to be a spectator any longer,” she said. “I wanted to be a change agent. I did what I now tell my friends who complain, ‘What would you like it to be?’”
The Des Moines area has workforce challenges, but has undergone a mini-revolution. It seems to be working.
“We were a net exporter for many years, and now we are importing,” said Mary Bontrager, executive vice president of talent development at the Greater Des Moines Partnership. “It speaks to our ability to attract people to the area.”
Des Moines has seen 16 percent job growth, and in the greater Des Moines metro, the 25- to 34-age group has increased by 30 percent since 2000, she said.
In the early 2000s, downtown Des Moines was asleep after 5 p.m., but leaders collectively and intentionally changed the narrative. Des Moines ramped up its downtown housing, improved civic spaces such as bike trails and overhauled the Raccoon River walk. New hotels, a new arena, a science center, a new library and an outdoor sculpture garden joined the offerings.
More than $5 billion has been invested, and it appears to be paying off. Headlines from national media are paying tribute. “Des Moines, Iowa: How America’s Dullest City Got Cool” appeared on Politico. The Atlantic published, “Do the Most Hipster Thing Possible — Move to Des Moines.”
“We created a blueprint of what is next and what do we need next — a wish list, if you will,” Bontrager said. “What is important? What does the next generation of worker want? And then prioritized.”
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