Labor: Workers are needed

Tight labor market raises concerns as local economic boom means the need will continue

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Lynn Pedersen, branch manager at the Fort Dodge QPS Employment Group, poses in her office recently.

The economic boom that Fort Dodge and Webster County have experienced in recent years can continue if the workforce necessary to sustain it can be developed. Dennis Plautz, who is chief executive officer of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, said that observation is his cautionary message as 2018 begins.

“We have so many opportunities here now to further grow this economy that we have to find a way to mitigate the workforce issues in order to keep that going,” he said. “That’s the one thing other than failing to continue to collaborate that I see derailing this, slowing it down.”

The simple truth is that finding the workers needed is an increasing concern for both employers already here and those contemplating investing in this community.

“The labor market actually is very tight,” said Nancy Lundgren, market leader at Manpower’s Fort Dodge office. “Right now, we are sitting at 3.3 percent unemployment rate for Webster County. That is what came out for the December unemployment rate. Overall, the state is at 2.8 percent.”

The recessionary days of just a few years ago are now mostly a memory. Nationwide the unemployment rate in December was 4.1 percent.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Mady Alstott, of Fort Dodge, is all smiles as she prepares to sign a letter of letter of intent to hire Wednesday night during the Fort Dodge Community School District All Star Career Expo at Fort Dodge Senior High. The candidates still have to go through several other steps before they’re hired including a background check and credentials check. The school board votes on the potential hires at their next meeting.

“When I started here five years ago, we had the people but we didn’t have the jobs,” Lynn Pedersen, branch manager of the QPS office in Fort Dodge, said. “Now we have the jobs and we don’t have the people. It now probably takes us two or three times more work to find the right person for a position and get it filled for a client than it did before.”

This lack of people seeking jobs has changed the environment for a wide array of employers.

“I never thought I’d see the day when I would look at the unemployment figures coming out on the news and say, ‘Oh no, unemployment went down again.'” Pedersen told The Messenger late in December. “The unemployment rate has gotten so low that our clients and everybody in the communities around are scrambling to try to find people. If you drive around town you will see a lot of ‘hiring’ signs in windows. You have big companies that are moving into the area and they are going to need people.”

Confronting a tough labor market

Plautz said the tight labor market all across Iowa means that companies will be attracted to those communities that make it easier for them to find and keep workers. He said two factors are critically important as Fort Dodge strives to be a leader in that competition.

“One is it puts a great emphasis on what Iowa Central Community College does through the training and retraining they do as well as the partnering with the local companies to meet their training needs that Iowa Central is just tremendous at. That’s one of the real values of Iowa Central. They are providing training that our companies need versus some boilerplate training program,” Plautz said. “The second part of the answer is we have to have a quality of life so that we can recruit people from the more urban areas and other parts of the country, too.”

The particular needs of the large corporations that are being attracted to Webster County add an additional factor to the manpower equation.

“The companies that we have and that we are getting I would refer to as high-transfer companies,” Plautz said. “People transfer around the country and the world from other facilities owned by these same companies that are located here. If they are not able to get people to transfer to this location versus some other location in their system it’s going to put our local companies at real disadvantage within their system.”

That makes the gains that have been made — or are on the drawing boards — regarding enhancement of the quality of life locally especially important as these employers contemplate additional investments in Webster County, according to Plautz.

He said the good news is that the community can take pride in its significant quality of life accomplishment thus far.

“I think we’ve made great progress,” Plautz said. “In 2006, we did a targeted industry analysis. We surveyed CEOs and new hires and employees. We asked them what was wrong with us. What do we have to do to make it easier for you to grow and be more viable in Webster County? The answers were everything from image to more comparison shopping to lack of housing diversity. It was just the whole gamut. Quality of life was a huge part of that. Since 2006, this county and the city of Fort Dodge have made great strides in those things as evidenced by such things as trails, OHV park, a new aquatic center, cleaning up the image and appearance of the community.”

The renaissance taking place along Central Avenue and nearby venues is also a positive part of the story because people tend to see the condition of a community’s downtown as an indicator of the town’s economic health, according to Plautz.

“People will go to a downtown and form an impression of what the economy is in that town,” he said.

The year ahead

The ManpowerGroup Employment Outlook Survey suggests that employers are in an expansionary mood. That likely will increase the competition for qualified workers. This national survey is conducted quarterly. It attempts to measure “employers’ intentions to increase or decrease the number of employees in their workforces during the next quarter.”

Here is a key section of the analysis pertaining to Iowa that was released on Dec. 12, 2017:

“Employers in Iowa expect to hire at a brisk pace during Quarter 1 2018, according to the ManpowerGroup Employment Outlook Survey. From January to March, 28 percent of the companies interviewed plan to hire more employees, while 7 percent expect to reduce their payrolls. Another 62 percent expect to maintain their current workforce levels and 3 percent are not certain of their hiring plans.”

If one assumes that unemployment statistics are a useful indicator of just how tight the job market is in a locality, the numbers for December 2017 compared to December 2016 suggest that the competition for workers is becoming fiercer locally. In December 2017, according to data released by Iowa Workforce Development, the unemployment rate in Webster County was 3.3 percent. That was a significant drop from the already low 3.9 percent in December 2016. Statewide, the unemployment rate was 2.8 percent in December 2017, down from 3.5 percent in December 2016.

Manpower’s Lundgren said she has witnessed the tightening of the labor market during her time with the placement firm.

“I actually started recruiting for Manpower in 2011,” she said. “That was on the tail end of the recession. There were a lot of people looking for jobs at that time. It was a lot easier to find those people. It is a lot harder at this point to find them. You have to search everywhere.”

Lundgren said employers are revising their recruitment strategies to cope with a tough hiring marketplace.

“It seems like they are using a lot more staffing firms at the same time,” she said. “That’s probably one thing that I’m seeing.”

Pedersen at QPS said the tight job market nationally is likely to remain tight.

“It’s going to get worse because you’ve got 10,000 baby boomers a day who are retiring,” she said.