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Economic Development Head Talks Attracting Residents, Automation Challenges

John Pemble
/
IPR file
Iowa's economic development director wants a renewed focus on attracting residents to the state, and preparing manufacturers for automation.

Iowa’s economic development head made her case before state lawmakers Tuesday on the Iowa's leading challenges when it comes to fostering business and workforce. In making a pitch for maintaining her agency's funding, Director Deb Durham urged lawmakers on the Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee to consider how to improve quality of life in Iowa and prepare for a changing economy.

Durham is asking state lawmakers to maintain what she calls "status quo funding." But within Iowa's Economic Development Authority, Durham plans to rework how the agency uses its tourism dollars. Instead of focusing on short-term visitors, Duram wants to attract long-term residents to the state.

"I'm not sure that people would rank Iowa as a tourism destination state. I mean let's just be honest," Durham said. "However, people do come in here for festivals and weekends and reunions and to ride RAGBRAI."

When out-of-state visitors do come to Iowa's signature events and festivals, Durham hopes her agency can show them what an Iowa lifestyle would be like, and encourage them to consider staying.

“What we are going to try to do is say, ‘listen, when you are here for these events, I want you to make that connection that you could actually live here, right?’," Durham said. "Because we need employees. We need to grow Iowa’s population.”

Employers across Iowa say they struggle to attract new workers, while more young Iowans move out of state. Durham says one of the keys to growing the state’s workforce is investing in quality of life and creating a community where young families want to live.

With the lowest unemployment rate in the country, Iowa's employers say they're struggling to find the right workers with the right skills in the state's current workforce. 

Senator William Dotzler, D-Waterloo, tempered some of Durham's optimism when it comes to overcoming the state's worker shortage.

"When you made the statement that 'I think we can recruit people to Iowa, fill those jobs' my experience is  that isn't being done yet," Dotzler said. "When I listen to manufacturers in rural Iowa and across this state, they're saying we are actually outsourcing work."

Dotzler says the Legislature's support for economic development in the state has been shrinking for years. He told Durham he wants to see a larger effort to support Iowa's rural communities.

"One of the things that I think the Legislature needs to do, and I think the economic development authority and you ought to help lead some of this charge about trying to do more for rural communities to help them become the type of place that people want to live in."

Automation could threaten more jobs

Durham is also concerned about how automation will impact the state's largest industry. She told the appropriations subcommittee that advanced manufacturers are actively seeing their operation change as new developments in robotics come down the pike.

Another wave of automation is expected to eliminate jobs throughout the economy, impacting low and middle wage workers. A recent analysis by Axios shows Iowa is among the top five states with the greatest number of at-risk jobs.

Durham says lawmakers and manufacturers need to be preparing now.

“Here’s the big challenge we have, I will tell you, with manufacturing, and the thing that we all need to be paying very, very close attention to: that manufacturing is moving towards automation in a way that is quite frankly staggering than anything we’ve seen.”

Durham is encouraging advanced manufacturers to not fear automation, but to invest in their workers’ ability to adapt to it. She ultimately expects job losses in the state, but says remaining jobs will likely be higher paid.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter