The next time you’re walking into a restaurant or grocery store, or pretty much any business, pause to look at the door. Near the sign about wearing a face mask, you’ll probably see a “help wanted” sign.

They’re everywhere.

Iowa businesses desperately need workers.

Most Iowans already are working. We just need more Iowans.

What happens when workers can’t be found?

You wait 90 minutes for a meal at a restaurant. The telephone at the tree nursery goes unanswered. You stand in longer lines at the checkout. No one is available to help you select the right eyeglasses, cat food, tennis shoes or bicycle. The delivery of materials to build your new deck takes five weeks.

Maybe the business shuts down.

After opening in January, the West Des Moines Steak ‘n Shake temporarily closed in April and cited “being significantly understaffed.” A notice was posted to the restaurant’s door that read “We plan to hire more team members and reopen on Monday, April 26, 2021.”

When a business is inadequately staffed, frustrated customers may walk away. They purchase a new cellphone online instead of in the store. They decide not to buy that couch. They wait another year to have a fence installed.

A local business loses a sale, government loses tax revenue and economic activity in Iowa takes another little hit. These hits add up.

Some armchair economists chalk up the labor shortage to lazy young adults or economic stimulus and unemployment insurance checks providing a disincentive to work. Some lawmakers even want to “encourage” employment by imposing work requirements on benefits like Medicaid.

What they don’t talk about: The vast majority of working-age Iowans already have jobs.

Iowa’s labor supply ‘shrunk and hasn’t recovered’ from COVID-19

“Iowa ranks first in the nation for labor force participation,” said Joe Murphy, executive director the Iowa Business Council, during a recent council webinar about economic development.

Then mix in our low unemployment rate, slow population growth and people choosing to drop out of the labor market.

“Iowa’s labor supply has declined by twice as much during the pandemic as it did nationally,” said Dave Swenson, an Iowa State University researcher who conducts independent economic analysis and leans left in his personal politics. “It has shrunk and hasn’t recovered. I argue that is going to hamper the state’s economic recovery.”

The biggest decline, he said, is in women 45 to 54 years old. This is not generally a demographic home-schooling young kids during a pandemic. There was also a decline in people under age 24 — the very young adults traditionally relied on by restaurants, grocers, construction companies, delivery services, hotels, swimming pools and numerous other places who make our consumer-driven economy go round.

Companies tend to respond to a labor shortage by paying more to attract and retain workers. Great. Yet when a company like Amazon opens up a new facility in the metro area and it or other businesses offer higher wages, workers gravitate there from jobs at nursing homes, restaurants, youth shelters and other organizations drawing on the same general labor pool.

Another help wanted sign goes up. Another manager crosses her fingers for applicants.

What all this means is that Iowa does not, in fact, have a labor shortage.

Iowa has a people shortage.

How can this be fixed?

The solution is attracting and retaining people.

Unfortunately, Republicans controlling the Iowa Legislature and governor’s office don’t seem too interested in that. Instead, they have perfected the art of alienating entire groups of people.

Attack tenure at universities, alienating academics. Focus on school bathroom policies, alienating transgender individuals and allies. Refuse to ban racial profiling by law enforcement, alienating people of color.

Their policies and rhetoric on immigrants discourage newcomers from locating here, even though we need foreign-born residents to fill jobs in health care, child care, agriculture, hospitality and other sectors.

Republicans also refuse to make Iowa a better place to live, work and raise a family. They won’t raise the minimum wage. They move at a snail’s pace on providing assistance for child care. They fail to raise the sales tax a fraction of a penny to invest in recreation and conservation. They won’t impose mandates on the agriculture industry to clean up our polluted waterways.

And the pandemic has underscored a new factor about the modern workforce that could discourage workers from moving here: the capability to work remotely. Skilled workers can land a great job in Iowa but choose to live where there are mountains, oceans and more young, diverse professionals to socialize with.

Instead of talking about attracting people, GOP politicians talk about attracting businesses, mostly by lowering taxes.

The irony is businesses will not locate where there are not people to hire. And workers won’t come unless Iowa is a great place to live.

Our leaders should focus on making Iowa a destination for outsiders and a place our young adults want to stay. It’s neither.

Every year Swenson asks his university students, including many who are native Iowans, if they think they will eventually work in this state. He said he’s never had more than 10% raise their hands.

“They’re wired to leave,” he said.

The “help wanted” signs will remain.

Des Moines Register

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