Local businesses contend with labor shortages as need for workers grows

Several major Dubuque employers recently announced their plans to expand and add positions, but amid the excitement over the coming growth, some asked, where are they going to find workers?

One of those companies, Rite-Hite, aims to add 100 jobs as part of an expansion of its Dubuque facility amid soaring demand for its products. Corporate Marketing and Communications Director Sara Everts said company officials are aware of the workforce challenges as they seek to fill the positions.

“If you don’t stop and think about the workforce shortage, you’re not doing your job,” she said. “That is why we are trying to get ahead of this and get the word out there about these quality positions.”

Also last week, both Klauer Manufacturing Co. and Hormel Food Corp. announced their own expansions in Dubuque, with collective plans to add another 54 jobs.

But those announcements come at a time when many existing businesses, from manufacturers to restaurants to ski resorts, are struggling to find the workers they need.

“Typically, we are able to fill all of our positions fairly easily,” said Mark Gordon, general manager at Sundown Mountain Resort near Dubuque. “This year has certainly been a bit more difficult due to the shrinking workforce.”

Economic development leaders believe the Dubuque area can meet the expanding demand for local labor, but they also say both businesses and governments will need to make changes to attract a larger workforce.

“There are a lot of pieces to this challenge, and we need to look at every one of them,” said Rick Dickinson, president and CEO of Greater Dubuque Development Corp. “It’s not a problem that one party is going to fix.”

The most recent statistics from Iowa Workforce Development put Dubuque County’s unemployment rate at 2.7% in November, bringing the county back to pre-pandemic levels.

However, the county’s overall labor force is markedly smaller than it was two years ago. In November, Dubuque County’s civilian labor force totaled 54,500, compared to 56,800 in November 2019.

As local businesses have faced workforce shortages, many have increased wages to attract new workers. Over the past year, the average weekly earnings for residents of the Dubuque metropolitan area increased from $919 to $971 as of November 2021.

Gordon said he has increased wages for some positions at Sundown Mountain by about 40%.

“We have had to increase wages in order to attract lift operators,” he said. “That is how we can stay competitive and entice people to come work here.”

Luke Flatin, owner of Rusty Taco and Sonic Drive-In locations in Dubuque, said he has filled staff positions by offering competitive wages and creating a positive work environment.

“Since COVID, we have had a lot of conversations with our management about making sure we are creating places that people want to work,” Flatin said.

Everts said Rite-Hite officials will work to ensure their wages are competitive, but they also are spending more advertising open positions to ensure residents know about the company’s job opportunities.

“We are trying to get the word out there,” Everts said. “We believe we are competitive.”

Still, Dickinson said workforce shortages won’t be solved solely by local businesses. He said larger societal issues are driving the shortage locally, pointing to a lack of affordable child care, housing options and amenities that attract young professionals.

“It’s true that there are challenges with the workforce that have been accentuated by the pandemic,” Dickinson said. “The bigger issue is the Midwest has not done a good job of recruiting talent and retaining talent.”

Dickinson urged state action to resolve the state’s child care shortage and emphasized the importance of continuing to develop housing locally.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds recently awarded $36.6 million in grants to create more child care positions throughout the state, with more than $3.8 million going to Dubuque programs. Reynolds also has proposed increasing the number of children that a single child care provider can enroll.

Dickinson said the Dubuque area needs to make itself more appealing to a younger demographic by providing the services and amenities that young people look for in their home cities.

“We have to create our own success by creating our own resources and solutions to this challenge,” he said. “I think Iowa needs to do a better job at attracting the younger generation.”

Despite ongoing challenges in filling open positions, local economic development professionals stressed the importance of continuing to create new jobs by encouraging the introduction of new businesses and the expansion of existing ones.

“We need to continue to seek opportunity,” said Molly Grover, president and CEO of Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce. “Seeing the growth of our existing businesses is a good thing, and we are using all the tools in our toolbox to make sure that continues to happen.”