More than 70% of Dubuque-area businesses in a recent study reported an increase in sales over the past year.
That marks the highest such total in five years.
“Things are clearly humming along,” said Dan McDonald, vice president of existing business for Greater Dubuque Development Corp.
The results were gleaned from GDDC’s InfoAction study, which surveyed 300 local business leaders over the fiscal year ending June 30.
The report showed that 71% of respondents enjoyed increased sales over the previous year. That was compared to 68% from fiscal year 2017-18 and 55% in 2016-17.
McDonald believes that the agility of smaller, family-owned businesses has been key to this success.
“With these larger, publicly traded companies, sometimes you see that their hands are tied in the short term,” he said. “Dubuque’s secret weapon is these longtime existing businesses with the capital and decision-making ability to turn on a dime and seize opportunities.”
Even so, he acknowledged that multiple factors — including shifting demographics, workforce concerns and global economic forces — could impact the trajectory of the local economy in the years ahead.
When asked to identify the region’s three largest weaknesses, “workforce challenges” were cited by 41% of respondents. That was the main challenge listed by local companies and represented an increase over last year, when 38% of respondents cited it.
“That’s affecting businesses all over,” McDonald said. “Whether you’re in Dubuque, Denver or Dallas, workforce shortages are having an impact.”
Software development company PBS Systems, which has a Dubuque office at 500 Iowa St., is among the businesses in growth mode.
Colleen Callahan, director of U.S. support operations, said the company employs about 25 people in Dubuque, an increase of four from one year earlier.
The growth has required strategic thinking and major time commitments.
About five years ago, officials at PBS Systems realized they were having trouble recruiting. In response, the company dramatically ramped up efforts to connect with area youth.
Callahan previously served on the advisory board for Clarke University and now serves on a similar board at Northeast Iowa Community College. She also participates in mentoring programs at the University of Dubuque.
“Because of laying that groundwork, we don’t face those same workforce challenges anymore,” she said. “We’re now in a position where we have more candidates than jobs.”
IBM in Dubuque is employing a similar strategy.
For multiple years, the company has orchestrated programs that connect local middle school students to science, technology, engineering and math opportunities. Last year, IBM launched a new robotics camp for third-grade students in Dubuque Community Schools.
More than 250 students at four schools participated, according to Andy Sherman, IBM senior manager and site lead at the Dubuque facility.
“The more they see the benefits of STEM and the joy they can have in those activities, the more they will want to do that someday as a career,” Sherman said.
Connecting with youth was a major trend in the results of GDDC’s HR Action study, which polled 70 human resources representatives and was released in conjunction with InfoAction.
This study showed that 44% of companies are providing in-classroom presentations, up from 33% a year ago. Meanwhile, 39% are participating in school-based career and tech fairs, compared with 35% one year ago.
RETENTION AND TRAINING
The HR Action report showed that companies are increasingly concerned about an inability to retain workers who come to Dubuque from outside communities.
Respondents were asked to rate this concern on a scale of 1 to 7. This year they rated “difficulty retaining” these workers as a 5.5, compared to 5.1 last year.
“When newcomers arrive in our community, it’s so important that we are engaging them as quickly as possible so they have a good experience and stay,” said GDDC Vice President of Workforce Solutions Kristin Dietzel.
The report also revealed that 50% of companies are increasing their investments in employee training. That is up from 39% that were increasing such investments one year ago.
In many ways, this emphasis on in-house training was borne out of necessity.
“Because of workforce shortages, many people are being promoted faster than they may have been in the past,” Dietzel said. “That means they are being moved into roles where they may not have a lot of experience and that training is required.”
In addition to looking within, companies are reaching out to different kinds of candidates.
In the HR Action study, 87% of respondents said they would hire ex-criminal offenders. That is up from 80% the year before.