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Iowa to Tackle Worker Shortage, But It Is Unclear How

To address the persistent worker shortage, some lawmakers have suggested job training programs, increased affordable housing and child-care access and cutting taxes, but it is unknown which, if any, will be the final solution.

(TNS) — With Iowa's workforce still lagging behind the pre-pandemic level of filling jobs, lawmakers feel compelled to take action when they return next week to the Capitol for the 2022 legislative session — but just how they'll do that is yet unknown.

Legislative leaders acknowledged the need for more workers, which is an issue not unique to Iowa. They also acknowledged many different ways they could attempt to help address it: job training and preparation programs, boosting access to affordable housing and child care, cutting taxes or coaxing Iowans off unemployment and food assistance programs.

But details were scarce in interviews with the governor and legislative leaders on how to proceed. Any plans, apparently, will have to wait to cement during the legislative session.

"I don't go anywhere, and the members of the (Iowa House Republican) caucus don't go anywhere, where that isn't probably the No. 1 topic of conversation — Republican, Democrat, independent — all across the state," said Pat Grassley, the Republican House speaker from New Hartford.

"I've said any idea that anyone has needs to be looked at," Grassley said. "That doesn't mean they're all going to happen. That doesn't mean they're all good ideas. But we have to be putting ideas on the table."

While a shortage in filling jobs is not unique to Iowa, the issue persists here. In January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there were 1.68 million Iowans in the workforce, and the share of Iowans working was 70 percent, according to state workforce data. In November 2021, the last month for which state workforce data is available, there were 85,600 fewer Iowans in the workforce, and the share of Iowans working was down more than 3 percentage points, to 66.8 percent.

"It is a No. 1 issue that we hear when we travel the state, when we talk to Iowans, and we certainly want to do whatever we can from a legislative perspective to help that," said Jack Whitver, the Republican Senate majority leader from Ankeny. "Whatever we can do to try to help those that don't have jobs get into the workforce, into jobs that are not just jobs but careers, that they can be successful."

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she plans to introduce what she called "a comprehensive bill" to address the state's workforce.

"That is all business and industry talked to me about when traveling the state, and in communities, I don't care what size, small, medium or large," Reynolds said. "Workforce is by far their biggest issue."

Reynolds announced her pending legislative proposal Tuesday during a session forum hosted by the Iowa Capitol Press Association. But said she does not intend to offer any details until next Tuesday's annual Condition of the State address.

"It's just an overall theme, because it's impacting everything we do," Reynolds said.

Reynolds did say her plan will involve working with refugee communities; helping underrepresented Iowans get job skills; supporting adult education; addressing access to affordable child care, housing and broadband internet; and making further changes to the state's unemployment system.

Reynolds and the state workforce development department already have implemented some changes to the unemployment system. Iowans receiving jobless benefits must now conduct more work search activities and work with a case manager, who will help Iowans receiving benefits conduct those work searches.

A spokesman for Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said the department will defer to Reynolds on potential legislative solutions until after the governor's address.

"Our goal with (the new unemployment program) is to give unemployed workers both extra help and extra incentive to find a new career path as quickly as possible," Townsend said in a statement issued with the earlier changes. " Iowa needs its people working, and we'll do whatever we can to help get you there."

Whitver said one way Senate Republicans will attempt to address a shortage is through the group's ongoing effort to get Iowans off government assistance and into the workforce. Republicans say the changes will help employers find workers and help those Iowans get jobs that will improve their lives. But critics contend changes to those programs could push out people who need that assistance in order to survive.

"That's one thing that we've been big on for five years now, but it's even more appropriate now, or more needed now with the lack of workers in almost every field," Whitver said.

Jennifer Konfrst, the Democratic House minority leader from Windsor Heights, said lawmakers should put more funding into programs designed to help child care centers create more openings, support child care workers and create more access to affordable housing.

Konfrst also criticized majority Republicans for over the past five years pursuing a conservative agenda that, she alleges, has made Iowa appear unwelcoming to people from other states who may have considered moving here.

"Workforce isn't something that gets fixed by one magic bullet solution. It gets fixed by making Iowa a place people want to move and people want to work," Konfrst said. "It's not just one thing. And over the years, especially recently, the Legislature has introduced bills that make Iowa an unwelcoming place."

Zach Wahls, the Democratic Senate minority leader from Coralville, also highlighted housing issues — including at mobile home parks where rent has increased dramatically in recent years — and child care. He also said Senate Democrats will advocate for continued investment in job training and preparation programs.

"We're going to focus on career and technical education, apprenticeships, making sure that we are investing in the last-dollar scholarship and community colleges," Wahls said. "Those job preparation (programs), that bucket is a big one."

The 2022 session of the Iowa Legislature is scheduled to begin Monday. The session does not have a defined end date, but funding for legislators' travel and lodging expenses expires after April 19, the 100th day of the session.

(c)2022 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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