By now, nearly everyone in the Dubuque area has felt the impact of the worker shortage.

For many working people, it means extra duties, extra hours and extra days of work to fill the void left by vacant positions. Companies are getting few — if any — applicants to fill jobs that once would have seen a pile of resumes. Area residents looking to stop at a restaurant or retailer might have encountered a place closed up early because of a lack of staffing.

Because this worker shortage comes on the heels of the pandemic, there is a tendency to want to link these events. For a while, there was an assumption that after months of unemployment supplemented by pandemic stimulus aid, workers just weren’t in any hurry to go back to work.

Now, we know that’s not really an accurate picture. Dubuque County’s unemployment rate fell to 2.9% in September, down from 4.6% in the same month last year. All 10 counties in the Telegraph Herald readership area — which covers portions of Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois — observed drops in the September jobless rate, compared to both the previous month (August 2021) and the same month the previous year (September 2020).

Unemployment in Dubuque County is lower than both the national rate (4.8% in September) and the statewide rate (4.0%). And it is only slightly higher than the 2.0% unemployment rate reported in Dubuque County in September 2019 before the pandemic altered the economic landscape.

That’s a pretty good indication that the worker shortage has little to do with unemployment.

Here’s an even sharper contrast:

In September 2021, 1,600 Dubuque County residents received unemployment benefits — 500 more than in September 2019.

But the number of individuals employed or actively seeking employment dropped dramatically in that time frame — from 57,800 in September 2019 to 54,800 in September 2021.

That’s 3,000 fewer people either working or seeking work. And that’s the challenge.

When Gov. Kim Reynolds in June suspended federal supplemental benefits to the unemployed, the move resulted in little change in the worker shortage. That’s because the reduction in workers over the past two years is not caused primarily by individuals milking unemployment benefits; rather, it is the result of individuals choosing to leave the workforce altogether.

That has created a difficult workforce climate, putting more pressure on employers than ever. We’re seeing that already with wages climbing locally and signing bonuses being dangled. This change might further manifest itself in offering positions with benefits or, for the biggest and/or most innovative companies, helping to try to figure out the child care piece.

Additionally, with so many openings among full-time jobs with benefits, there likely are fewer people available to work the part-time jobs — which often round out the workforce at restaurants, bars and retailers. Folks aren’t as interested in working multiple part-time jobs when they can go to a manufacturer and get 40 hours with benefits and a retention bonus.

All of these factors are combining to force a redefinition of various industries. Some employers will not survive without really reevaluating how employees fit into the equation.

Surely this new employment picture is not lost on those involved in the Deere & Co. strike. Workers likely feel emboldened to hold out for what they feel they deserve when they know the scarcity of workforce.

When Dubuque saw highest-in-the-nation unemployment rates in the 1980s wreak havoc on the local business climate, most people would have thought unemployment rates of less than 3% would have been the answer to all problems. In fact, like most things in business, there’s a balance required. Complex economic problems call for innovative and nuanced solutions. It will take all stakeholders to develop strategies to right-size the workforce in the greater Dubuque area.

Editorials reflect the consensus of the Telegraph Herald Editorial Board.

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