I had the opportunity when I was mayor of Cedar Rapids to attend the building expansion celebration service at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. During the service, the congregation sang a hymn, “All Are Welcome.” I did feel welcome that Sunday morning. Not just because of that song, but because of the handshakes, the smiles, the hellos and the “thank you for coming” greetings. I am sure we have all been in situations when we felt welcomed, just as there are times when we felt unwelcomed.
Our region has a big challenge facing us today. Workforce. I believe it will only get more challenging if we don’t contemplate a line from that hymn sung that Sunday morning, that “all are welcome in this place.”
The unemployment rate in Iowa is below 3 percent. The labor market is extremely tight, with 71 of 99 counties losing population. The Board of Regents just announced enrollment numbers at all three state universities are going to be down this year. Recent numbers from community colleges and private colleges and universities also show stagnant or declining growth. Why is this important? Business and economic growth depends on available people to fuel growth.
We need a growing workforce. If companies cannot find workers, local expansion plans are in jeopardy. Or worse, the expansion takes place somewhere other than our region. Businesses looking to locate here wonder how they will fill positions because of the tight labor market. We all benefit from strong economic growth. With more jobs, higher wages and more disposable income, the value of our assets, such as a home, increase.
The exact opposite happens when the economy declines or is stunted. Today we are not reaching our highest capacity and economic potential because of too few workers. We have a workforce shortage, and it is widespread. It includes nurses, machinists, truck drivers, pilots, assembly line workers and welders. Almost every industry has a challenge. When you couple declines in population with the retirement of the baby boomer generation, you can see why this is a big issue.
We can take a small step to help solve this problem by embracing the refugee population. The refugee discussion is separate from illegal immigration. Refugees are coming legally. The Cedar Rapids area has been an entry point for around 100 to 150 refugees per year. We also have refugees that settle into the area after initially being settled in other communities. This number is more difficult to pinpoint, but estimates are several hundred per year.
Are refugees taking over? No. Are refugees taking our jobs? No. They want to give, not take.
Several companies in the area have filled open positions with recent refugees. If you are working with someone who is a refugee, that person is a colleague. While they may have limited English skills, they are working, just like you — and paying taxes, just like you.
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In some cases, their presence may be saving your job. If employers can’t fill jobs, it can lead some companies to consider relocating, and if that happens, all jobs are lost.
Whether you are working or retired, what do you think and do when you realize you know someone is new to our community? Hopefully most of you are like the congregation at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church the morning I attended the ribbon-cutting.
Being welcomed is always preferred to the opposite. A smile and a simple hello will make all the difference in the world.
Sept. 14 to 23 is designated as National Welcoming Week. Across the country a growing movement of cities and local communities are recognizing and promoting the contributions that immigrants bring and developing comprehensive efforts to attract and welcome them.
• Ron Corbett is the business retention and expansion strategist for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and served as mayor of Cedar Rapids from 2010 to 2017.