As the total number of jobs in Iowa returns to pre-pandemic levels, jobs in the Dubuque metropolitan area are also at their highest since the coronavirus pandemic began.
State and local officials said the job growth appears to indicate a continuing expansion of Iowa’s and the area’s economy, though concerns remain over a stagnant labor force participation rate that could spell trouble for filling available jobs.
Iowa’s total nonfarm employment increased to 1,584,600 in October, eclipsing the 1,583,700 jobs in March 2020, according to Iowa Workforce Development.
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The Dubuque metro area also saw its highest number of jobs since the COVID-19 pandemic began, reaching 59,600 in October, though this still fell short of March 2020’s 60,500 nonfarm jobs.
At both the state and local levels, officials have hailed the job increase as a sign of a strong economy. In a press release, Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said strong hiring had been vital in “overcoming the 169,800 jobs lost since the beginning of the pandemic,” with a total of 170,700 jobs added in the nearly three years since.
The Dubuque metro saw the highest month-over-month growth in the state from September to October, according to Nic Hockenberry, Greater Dubuque Development Corp.’s director of workforce programming, and the third-highest rate of growth among metros from this time last year.
“One thing you can just tell is Dubuque’s economy is growing,” said Ryan Sempf, vice president of government and external affairs at Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve seen that a lot locally with companies that are locally owned and are expanding.”
Statewide, the most job gains were seen in the leisure and hospitality sector in October, with 2,300 new jobs. That sector also led job growth over the past year, adding 14,900 jobs since October 2021.
Manufacturing also gained some 9,100 jobs over the past 12 months statewide. Sempf attributed much of Dubuque’s job growth to that sector, citing expansions at several local businesses.
“What you’re seeing is, a lot of manufacturers are investing in space, whether that’s warehousing or actual capacity for production,” he said.
However, Dubuque Federation of Labor President Tom Townsend was among those who said the local workforce still faces challenges.
“That’s one of the things that disturbs me, when they’re saying things are all rosy and great in Des Moines, because we’re still trying to feed people here,” said Townsend, who also manages Dubuque Area Labor Harvest.
Townsend pointed to the stagnant labor force participation rate, which remains 1,200 workers below its peak in October 2019, and the planned departure of Georgia-Pacific from Dubuque at the end of the year, which is expected to cost the community 85 jobs.
“I don’t think you can say (the economy’s) been growing,” Townsend said. “It’s been different.”
A tight labor market remains an ongoing concern for businesses in the Dubuque area, with a shortage of child care and transportation options often cited as factors keeping residents out of the workforce.
Dubuque Screw Products Inc. intends to add 10 new jobs as it plans a 28,000-square-foot expansion to its facility on Chavenelle Road. But the company plans to ease into that growth gradually, controller Nick Biver said.
“It’s a challenging market right now,” Biver said. “There’s a limited pool of experienced candidates who are seeking to move to a new company, and there’s also the challenge of the younger generation seeking out careers in manufacturing and the trades in general.”
That labor shortage also has challenged small businesses. A. Alanda Gregory, co-owner of Tri-Phoenix Media, which distributes a list of Dubuque Black-owned businesses, said smaller employers struggle to compete with their larger competitors.
“It’s hard to retain employees when you can’t compensate them like you want to compensate them,” Gregory said.
Some local business leaders have expressed confidence in their expansion plans.
Wesley Rainer, owner of Hot Diggity Dogz, said he plans to hire three to four new employees as the fast-food business moves into a planned brick-and-mortar location. He said he plans on seeking teenage employees from the Multicultural Family Center to work part-time.
Nicole Harvey, owner of Take Over Cosmetics, also recently hired a new social media manager to advertise her line of skin- and hair-care products. She found her new employee in an unconventional manner. The employee was a regular user of her products whom she met at her booth at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids.
With her annual sales projected to double last year’s figures and plans to expand into more states in 2023, Harvey was blessed with good fortune and, better, confidence.
“Things are looking up,” she said. “I’m excited.”