Government

Fund would help Iowa businesses recruit workers from Puerto Rico

A home left destroyed by Hurricane Maria is seen in 2017 in Puerto Rico. An Iowa House committee last week approved a $2
A home left destroyed by Hurricane Maria is seen in 2017 in Puerto Rico. An Iowa House committee last week approved a $250,000 program that aims to help Iowa companies recruit needed workers from the U.S. territory that has been plagued by natural disasters in recent years. (Sarah L. Voisin/Washington Post)

DES MOINES — An Iowa House committee has approved creation of a workforce recruiting program that would target Puerto Ricans looking to relocate to work in Iowa.

“It’s a real, tangible solution,” Rep. Joe Mitchell, R-Mount Pleasant, said Thursday about House File 2136, which was unanimously approved by the State Government Committee. It would create a $250,000 Iowa’s Talent Pool Grant Fund to help businesses recruit employees from the U.S. territory that has suffered a series of natural disasters that have disrupted employment opportunities on the Caribbean island.

The grant fund, along with matching investments from businesses using it to recruit employees, will help increase the Iowa workforce and bring families to Iowa communities, which will increase school enrollment, Mitchell said.

In the Washington-Henry-Jefferson County district he represents, unemployment is just above 2 percent, according to Federal Reserve data. The challenge of finding qualified and skilled workers to fill a growing number of open positions has encouraged companies to search for new workforce pools, but also work with their communities to address larger issues.

At least one Mount Pleasant company, Lomont Molding, is looking at recruiting in Puerto Rico to find employees with the technical skills needed. The company has 40 workers from a local correctional facility working shifts at its plant.

Companies that meet program qualifications — including paying at least $15 an hour — would use the grant assistance, and the matching dollar-for-dollar contribution from the business, specifically for relocation-related expenses.

The idea, Mitchell explained, is that if businesses can recruit employees, communities will cooperate to find related services, such as housing and child care, for the new employees.

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That means addressing the availability of housing and affordable child care that can affect the growth of businesses, especially manufacturing companies that run 24 hours a day and need a constant stream of workers.

His goal is not only helping fill job openings, Mitchell said, but to grow population and school enrollment in Iowa communities.

“It’s a win-win,” said Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, “if it provides even a tiny bit of relief for residents of Puerto Rico while providing much-needed employees for Iowa businesses. If we see the success in this, we can open it to other U.S. territories hit with natural disasters.”

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

The Southeast Iowa Union contributed to this report.

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