Des Moines Register. May 6, 2021.

Editorial: Iowa doesn’t have a labor shortage. It has a people shortage

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.


Sioux City Journal. May 2,2021.

Editorial: More must be done to stem violence against Native women

As we learned last month in Dolly Butz’s compelling series, “Stolen lives,” four Northeast Nebraska women are among thousands of Native American women whose deaths were never fully explained.

When family members of Paulie, Lenice, Ashlea and Kozee asked how their loved ones died, they were routinely stonewalled, rebuffed or ignored. They had suspicions, but officials weren’t forthcoming – at all levels.

And why?

In order to put an end to the epidemic, authorities need to share what they’ve learned. The news may not be what families want to hear, but it could explain what led to the deaths and why these mysteries don’t have resolution.

While searching for her own answers, Butz encountered many of those same closed doors. Records weren’t produced, calls weren’t returned, questions about any investigations conducted weren’t answered.

At a time when Americans are seeking more transparency, this would seem an easy place to start.

We can’t imagine how family members feel when they’re not afforded closure. We hope, though, they’ll get the answers they seek.

“Missing and murdered Indigenous women” shouldn’t be a phrase that’s in our vocabulary. But, sadly, it is. Native women face disproportionately high rates of violence, compared to other ethnic groups. Studies have found that 84 percent of Indigenous women report having experienced violence at some point in their lifetimes, and, in some counties, they are murdered at more than 10 times the national average, Dolly discovered in her research.

Experts say a lack of communication and planning across jurisdictions, underfunded tribal justice systems, legal loopholes that benefit non-Native offenders, and the prevalence of sex trafficking in and around communities where Native Americans live all contribute to the crisis.

Addiction problems play a role as well, as many of the victims in Northeast Nebraska were struggling with substance abuse issues. In-bed treatment centers have long waiting lists. Had there been room, some women could have found ways to deal with domestic problems -- and lived.

While the MMIW crisis has been largely ignored in the past, recent grassroots efforts to illuminate it have gained the attention of policy makers. Federal officials say they’re creating task forces to deal with the issue. Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Debra Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, announced the formation of the Missing & Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.

But these plans need to have goals, objectives and deadlines. They can’t be gatherings just to say they’re gathering.

Discussions, however, are at the heart of this – for all of us. People on and off the reservation need to talk about the problem, offer solutions, act on those solutions.

Diversion is a tactic employed in Washington, where politicians use situations to further their careers. It shouldn’t be followed on a local level where friends and family are concerned.

What next?

Talk about the problem. Find solutions. Act.

Sometimes, the simplest approach is best.

The friends and families of Paulie, Lenice, Ashlea and Kozee deserve answers.


Dubuque Telegraph Herald. May 5, 2021.

Editorial: Heritage Trail paving a cause with mixed demand

When it comes to whether or not to pave a portion of Heritage Trail, there are two distinct camps with strongly held opinions.

A survey by the Dubuque County Conservation Board showed 249 respondents in favor of paving it, and 229 opposed, preferring to keep the trail lined with crushed limestone.

It’s hard to justify a change as radical as paving the 35-year-old trail when there’s no groundswell calling for such a change, and in fact, the nearly 500 people who felt strongly enough to weigh in on a survey were pretty equally divided. That doesn’t feel like enough momentum to make an elaborate and expensive transition to a partially paved trail.

For the people who prefer to use a paved trail for bicycling or walking, we have good news: There are plenty in the area, not to mention the sidewalks lining nearly every street in town and running through nearly every park. Heritage Trail offers a unique surface for those who prefer the softer give of the trail, and there just aren’t other trails like it.

Proponents, including the county Conservation Board, suggest paving the trail would increase its use three- or four-fold. That projection comes in part from counts on the part of Heritage Trail that runs through the city, where usage is higher.

If the county’s portion of the trail were paved, the theory goes, then its usage would be boosted like the trails in the city. Maybe. Maybe not. Would three or four times more people prefer to head to a paved Heritage Trail than other trails? It’s hard to say.

Paving wouldn’t be cheap, either. The stretch from Heritage Pond to Durango alone would cost at least $800,000. The taxpayer impact might be minimal, with conservation officials seeking to secure grant money to cover much of the cost.

Still, we have to wonder whether there might be better uses for that grant money.

Consider the largely overlooked Little Maquoketa River Mounds State Preserve. Located on a bluff along U.S. 52, just south of Sageville — and not far from Heritage Pond — the 41-acre site boasts a hilltop with 32 Native American conical burial mounds. Yet most local hikers never have been to the vastly overgrown spot.

County Conservation officials have said that if trees and weeds were cleared away, the location provides a stunning view of the Little Maquoketa River valley to the north. They suggest returning the mounds area to its original oak savanna landscape. Might that be a better use for grant money?

As it stands now, local hikers or bikers standing at Heritage Pond have the best of both worlds: They can choose their trail surface heading north or south. The county portion of Heritage Trail is a wonderful community amenity just the way it is.