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Some of Iowa's unemployed say there are deeper reasons why many aren't filling jobs

People attend a job fair in Newton looking for new employment
Catherine Wheeler
Companies put up booths in a conference room in Des Moines Area Community College campus in Newton.

At a job fair in Newton, people are walking through a big conference room. Its walls are lined with tables and signs. Companies are pitching themselves to the job seekers who are making their ways around, collecting companies’ pens and business cards.

This was back in December and most of the 335 people attending the two-day event were employees at TPI Composites, the wind turbine blade manufacturer that closed at the end of 2021. The closure caused
about 700 people to lose their jobs.

Sincearae Doran was with TPI for about 10 and a half years. She attended the job fair.

"I am here to seek employment. There's a bunch of potential employers. They're mainly within a 30-mile range from here, which is nice for the Newton community," she said. "So, [I'm] just kind of checking everything out."

Doran said she’s not too concerned about finding a new job, especially with seeing her options at the job fair. She said the companies here have the things she’s looking for in her next gig, like a competitive salary.

"It makes me question the people who are saying that they're struggling to find work, because there are so many places that are offering good wages and good opportunities with good benefits," she said.

That’s how a lot of people look at the state’s workforce shortage, but others say that’s not very helpful.

"It's definitely been a little bit stressful with that narrative," Kaylie Wilson said.

Wilson is 24 years old and graduated from college in 2020. She now lives in the Cedar Rapids area.

"Sometimes people are less likely to give you sympathy or understand where you're [coming] from, because you say, 'Oh, all these job boards have hundreds of jobs.' And it seems easy enough. But, the root of the problem is that it's not in my industry," Wilson said.

Wilson wants to work in government relations and stay in Iowa. She’s had a series of internships and short-term jobs in her field. But a lot of the open jobs she’s finding require more experience.

Wilson said while she worked in the service industry in college and at the beginning of the pandemic, she said she’s in a place right now where she doesn’t have to take a job waiting tables to make ends meet, especially with concerns about catching COVID-19 and her overall mental health while doing that kind of work.

"I've been through so much with my schooling, with my work experience, that I should be able to find a job in my industry." she said. "And I just want to make sure that I'm just improving my standard of living and having a good quality of life."

Wilson said recent experiences and the pandemic have changed the way she thinks about work and a career.

Austin Andrie-Grondek thinks that way, too. He’s 32 years old and lives in Council Bluffs.

"I think that empathy is the most important part of a long-term, working relationship for anybody. Any employer and employee needs to—they don't need to be friends. They don't need to be family, but they need to accept each other as human beings. And I think that that's definitely something that the pandemic has definitely brought out," he said.

For a lot of his life, Andrie-Grondek worked in the service industry, from dishwasher to chef de cuisine and management.

He was laid-off at the beginning of the pandemic, like a lot of people. He did some odd jobs for a time. He’s applied to retail stores but only received rejections.

He could go back to the service industry, but like Wilson, Andrie-Grondek, isn’t strictly focused on a higher salary.

"That's not the Band-Aid that this needs. Wages are only going to last for so long in this environment," he said. "If you really want to keep an employee, and we want to have that 20-year person that retires at where you're at, you have to be able to supply them with a need in life way past just the money you're handing them."

Iowa’s labor force participation rate has been holding steady for months, around 66 percent. The number of Iowans in the workforce did increase in December by 5,200.

The state has just recently begun a new program that hopes to find unemployed Iowans new jobs more quickly, and can help people with switching careers.

But it’s unlikely there’s a blanket solution to the state’s workforce shortage as people consider deeper questions about what they really want out of a job.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.