Story County looks to tackle underemployment in low-unemployment environment

Robbie Sequeira Special to the Herald
This chart shows the steadily decreasing unemployment rate in Ames, from the recession of 2007-08 to today. Graph by U.S. Department of Labor

Throughout the early months of 2018, Ames made the national news, but it wasn’t for a Cyclones game or to cover a political candidate, but because of the city’s distinction of having the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, which was 1.4 percent at the time.

This month, Ames maintains its top-rank above all U.S. cities with a 1.4 percent unemployment rate, which is 0.4 percent lower than the second-lowest rate in the U.S. — Iowa City, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

Story County’s unemployment rate hovers around 1.2 percent, which is the lowest among all U.S. counties, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

“Story County will often receive national coverage for having the lowest unemployment rate in the nation,” said Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University. “The top 10 in unemployment rates are usually college towns, and Story County is loaded up with a lot of people who are not in the labor force. College students consume goods and services and don’t work, which is why our labor force isn’t very large. Story County’s labor and job force has been growing consistently since 2016.”

Swenson said there are two notable trends in Story County’s economy — non-farm jobs continue to grow at a fixed pace relative to the growth of the labor force, and 1 of 3 jobs in Story County is filled by a non-Story County resident.

A consequence of the latter is that the labor supply for Story County jobs tends to come from nearby counties, such as Hamilton, Marshall, Boone, and Polk counties, creating a situation where some Story County residents find themselves underemployed.

A person is classified as underemployed if they work less than 40 hours a week, earn less than the median salary of peers with similar education and experience, or are overqualified for their current position.

While boasting record-low numbers in joblessness is certainly an accolade, officials who focus on local workforce issues are increasing their efforts to help underemployed Story County residents.

“It’s great that we have this low unemployment rate, but on the flip-side, there are people out there struggling to gain and keep employment,” said Brenda Dryer, director of existing industry and workforce solutions for the Ames Chamber of Commerce.

According to the 2016 Story County Labor Shed study, an estimated 6.7 percent of residents are underemployed due to low hours, skill mismatch, and current employment that pays below the poverty line.

That’s why Dryer, along with Story County public records liaison Deb Schildroth, applied for Story County to be a participant in the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s (CAEL) Inclusive Development Network.

Established this past year, the Inclusive Development Network is a highly-competitive program that provides grants to five U.S. cities and counties to develop a strategic plan to improve economic growth, unmet demand, and bridge opportunity gaps in selected communities.

“We had started the foundational work by talking to employers and agents in the workforce to understand what employers are looking for, and what applicants need,” said Schildroth. “This network bolsters what we’re trying to do — provide opportunities for Story County residents.”

The target area for the program is the Story County Labor Shed, which has already produced the necessary demographic information and underemployment statistics in recent studies.

Swenson said there are two distinctions of underemployed workers — involuntary part-time workers and marginally attached workers.

The former seeks full-time employment but has to settle for part-time work; while the latter are workers who want a job, are available to work, but have become so discouraged that they have stopped actively seeking work and are consequently not counted as officially unemployed.

If Story County is one of the five communities selected for the grant, both involuntary part-time workers and the marginally attached worker population in Story County stand to benefit.

One of the benefits of the program would be potentially revamped and accessible training sessions for underemployed workers.

The job market in Story County has seen a surge of advanced manufacturing and technical jobs in both the city and rural communities over the past couple of years.

These skill positions offer 40-hour weeks, competitive pay, and profit-sharing opportunities, but unfortunately, job-seekers in the county often feel discouraged to fill out an application.

“The jobs we have today, are not the jobs we had yesterday,” said Dryer. “So we know there’s a disconnect with technical training, so we have residents who may see our manufacturing opportunities and think they are unqualified, so we need to provide training for them to help them apply for these jobs.”

Dryer said the Chamber is working with Des Moines Area Community College to launch a production management certificate program — a free-to-apply for program that would help increase skills of job-seekers to prepare them for a job in maintenance technology, one of the fastest growing job opportunities in the county.

In addition to training, other focuses would be eliminating barriers that hinder underemployed residents, such as transportation, child care services and education.

“We know that transportation can be a barrier, how do we move our workforce from our rural communities to the places we have job growth,” said Dryer. “We also know that child care is a challenge — single parents working a second or third shift, and education — those who didn’t finish high school are eliminated from applying for basic jobs.”

Dryer and Schildroth said the willingness of employers and service providers throughout the county to help underemployed residents find amenable employment has given them a head-start in the application process.

The Inclusive Development Network will announce the five recipients for the program on March 1.

“This is going to be a highly competitive process up until March,” said Dryer. “We are competing against cities in Iowa and all over the nation, but this is a service that we feel will benefit an underserved portion of our population.”