‘There is just not enough people, there is not the right skill sets’ - Siouxland businesses still feeling impact of COVID-19 pandemic

Published: Oct. 29, 2021 at 6:44 PM CDT
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SIOUX CITY (KTIV)- Businesses from across Siouxland are still feeling the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many Siouxland businesses say they’re operating with about 60% of their typical workforce because many of their employees didn’t come back to work after the pandemic when precautions were lifted.

Local businesses Friday had the opportunity to attend The Siouxland Initiative Conference, in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota. That’s where state leaders from all three Siouxland states offered information on the economy. They also had advice for employers to help them find more qualified people who are willing to work.

“So the opportunity to bring in the heads of economic development of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota together to talk about the challenges that we all feel. Workforce challenges, how are we going to attract more people to our states, and how we are going to get more people off unemployment and back to employed status. It was really great to get updates from all three of them, and it is nice to see all three states are working hard,” said Mike Wells, CEO Wells Enterprises and 2020-2022 Chair, TSI Board of Directors.

In 2020, in spite of the pandemic, Site Selection Magazine ranked the Sioux City Metro “number one” in the nation for economic development, in areas with populations of 200,000 or less. In order to continue to see economic growth throughout Siouxland, leaders at the conference say the shortage of workers has to be addressed. Each of the speakers talked about the unemployment rate in their respective states. They also talked about finding more ways to motivate people to get back to work.

Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota are all below the national unemployment rate of 5.2%.

The latest numbers, from September, show Iowa’s rate at 4%. That’s down from 4.1% in August. South Dakota’s rate is even lower at 2.9% which is the same as it was in August. While Nebraska’s rate is the lowest of any state in the union at 2%.

So the problem isn’t available jobs it is available for workers to fill jobs, especially in the midwest.

“Right now it is workforce, workforce, workforce. There is just not enough people there is not the right skill sets. Industries are growing, and between supply chain issues and obviously inflation and other economic wildcards that are happening right now in the market,” said Debi Durham, Director, Iowa Economic Development Authority & Iowa Finance Authority.

“Industries are growing between you have some supply chain issues. Well, you know, I think you got wage inflation and you got inflation around commodities. I think, you know, that’s something that’s not going away anytime soon. So I think you know, the way you deal with it is, I mean, you’re just gonna have to, you got to really think about your culture because if you have really high turnover, people leaving that means you got to recruit more people to come to work. And then based on inflation, wage inflation, you got to pay onboard, so it gets back to a retention strategy,” said Tony Goins, Director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

There are several factors to consider when looking at the reasons people aren’t returning to work following the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, many businesses were forced to offer early retirement to their workers due to financial difficulties.

Another reason is some people reprioritized their lives given the uncertainties of the pandemic.

Also during the pandemic, and the layoffs and furloughs that followed, many families realized they could manage on a single income.

Still, others took time throughout the pandemic to reflect on their careers, and many did not return to their jobs after the pandemic.

“My job is to go out and recruit, and every CEO has to think the same way. And what you have to do is create a compelling value proposition that says this is why I should leave the south or the west, to come to the midwest. If you create that compelling value proposition we got low unemployment already, and low cost of living, you just have to show people that opportunity,” said Goins.

When it comes to women, they seem to be particularly affected, when it comes to the pandemic and employment. There are a couple of reasons for that situation.

“If you look at the population that was most impacted by COVID, it was women. And I call it the women’s recession that we are seeing. Women left because child care centers closed at rapid levels, and then there was online learning, and with online learning, you still need someone there to help navigate that,” said Durham.

Between 2019 and 2020, 53,500 women, across the country, left the labor force, according to a study done by CNBC.

Another big impact on the job market, especially during the pandemic, was the lack of access to high-speed broadband internet.

Each one of the Siouxland states has taken steps to make broadband more available and faster.

“We are personally involved with the CEOs or the heads of these telecom companies. And imploring them to say listen let’s think about what this means work from home, school from home, more telemedicine. These communities can’t function unless they have fiber to the home or some level of speeds that allow them to be functional,” said Goins.

“One thing Gov. Noem and her initial administration before the pandemic set out to make sure that broadband was accessible all throughout South Dakota. Today, over 203 million has been invested, and we continue to close that gap, that number is a little outdated we probably have over 30,000 new locations that now have access to high-speed internet,” says Chris Schilken, Deputy Commissioner, South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

“The legislature has procreated $100 million for internet in the last session. Gov. Reynolds just gave through our funding an additional $200 million. So right out the gate, Iowa has got $300 million that we are using to make that connection. So, we may be one of the slowest states today, but I can tell you in the next three years that is going to change,” said Durham.

Expanding access to broadband internet in Iowa was one of Gov. Reynolds’ top priorities in the last legislative session. In April, lawmakers passed the bill to establish a statewide grant program that’s designed to provide high-speed internet to areas that lack the technology.

Lawmakers agreed on a funding bill to provide $100-million for the broadband grant program. That’s less than the $150-million Reynolds requested.

Under the program, companies will apply for state grants to pay for installing the high-speed service. Areas most in need will get reimbursements of up to 75% of the project cost.

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