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Discussion: Is Iowa one of the best states in which to live?

posted on November 21, 2008 at 12:59 PM

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Iowa Journal host Paul Yeager discusses the current and potential efforts to recruit and retain Iowa's workforce with Rachel Judisch, Chair of the Generation Iowa Commission and Paul Lasley, professor and Chair, Iowa State University Departments of Sociology and Anthropology.

Paul Yeager: What does it take to help those who migrate to Iowa to succeed in business and enjoy the lifestyle offered here in the state?  What can the state learn from these new residents?  How can more of them be encouraged to come to Iowa?  What needs to be done to recruit and retain a younger workforce? 

Rachel Judish is chair of the Generation Iowa Commission.  She is studying Iowa's so-called brain-drain of young people and what can be done to retain a younger workforce.  That commission is to report its findings to the Iowa legislature in January. 

And also with us tonight is Paul Lasley, head of Iowa State University's Sociology Department and one who has observed decades of migration patterns into the state.  To the two of you I welcome you to The Iowa Journal.  We talk about the brain-drain.  How do we reverse it or are we reversing it already?

Rachel Judish: We're working on it, maybe that's the best way to put it.  The recent bringings in of Microsoft, Google over the last two years are great examples of what the state needs to do or encourage to create that in migration instead of the out migration that we currently have going on. 

What we're finding is that there is a significant wage gap between what you're able to make in Iowa for a very similar position when you compare it to the states regionally.  That paired with some of the student loan debt that our students tend to take on being very high compared to the national average results in a component that makes it very difficult to stay.

Paul Yeager: Professor, you see the students, Rachel mentioned the students there.  Is that some of the same things that you see from your point?

Paul Lasley: Well, indeed.  I think sometimes we have the allure of large metro areas and many Iowa students will go to the Chicago or the Minneapolis  But it seems to me that there's a real opportunity for us to reach out to those that maybe have been gone for three to five years. 

It seems like when they start having children or start thinking about starting a family, putting down roots maybe then the attraction and the bright lights of the city -- things like community, a safe place to live, good schools become much more important.  It seems to me that one of the things that we need to do in marketing ourselves to former Iowans, for young people that have been gone the three to five years.

One of my concerns is, though, that if they've been gone ten or twenty years they may be vested in the plant or the company that they're working for and they own a home, those begin to be ties that are hard to break. 

But those are the, Rachel, with three to five years and I think you and your husband were in Chicago for a period but then when opportunities open up we need to reach out to say there's opportunities here and I wouldn't use the word jobs.  I'm not sure that people are looking so much for jobs as they are looking for opportunities. to experience the city.

Paul Yeager: Opportunities, so we can't move mountains and ocean here which attract some to the coasts or the Chicago Tower but what can you go beyond that to the next step?

Paul Lasley: We have to look at opportunities for self-employment, own your own business.  Just as that video just showed us they didn't come here to create a job, they came here for an opportunity to own their own business.  Homeownership, a very big factor. 

When I interview people at Iowa State that we're trying to attract to Iowa State a lot of young families talk about they can buy a home and have a family.  Many young couples are faced with the issue of we can buy a home in some of these markets that have been so hot but we can't afford to have children and a home.  But in Iowa you can and so they're looking for opportunities really to pursue what I call the American Dream.  And Rachel, I think you and your husband are a perfect example of that.

Paul Yeager: You're part of that in migration.

Rachel Judish: We are, like we were speaking earlier both my husband and I went to UNI for our undergraduate degree and then went on for post-graduate degrees, I went to Iowa and he went to Chicago to further his education and we were out there for a number of years and then once he graduated the opportunity to become owner in a business, part-owner presented itself and that really was what appealed to him. 

My position at that point was more flexible so that was part of the decision to come back to this state and we talked to many people that it's the same thing, the challenges when you get into that age range, that five years of experience, taking that risk of selling the home, relocating, I've got a good job where I'm at, it's that risk factor.  And the census data backs you up.  About age 35 is where we start to see the in migration starting to come back in.

Paul Yeager: So, we'd like to see it from that 22 to 35, somewhere in that, which a lot of cities want to attract whether it's the hot nightlife or lots of great things are going on but try to get some of that back and don't leave that window open so wide.

Paul Lasley: One of the things that I have commented on before -- in the economic crisis of the 1980s Iowa lost about 300,000 people.  If we think who those were many of them were well educated, young, highly mobile.  If we would have been able to retain them they now would be in the prime years of earning, they would be the leaders in our community. 

We're now looking at a 20 year old in the 80s is 40 so they would be sort of what we'd call middle-age but they would be providing leadership in our communities and in churches and schools, they'd be coaching little league, they would be running for offices in our small towns.  Unfortunately, we let them leave and we probably weren't active enough or aggressive enough in trying to get them back so now I think we really have to redouble to fill that void that occurred.

Paul Yeager: You both have similar themes here with education backgrounds, you're from Iowa and educated here but you're from Missouri educated here and there's plenty people I talked to from just Central College down in Pella saying a lot of their jobs are here and it's pretty much the same story at each one of the colleges, they're coming here for education.  Is that one of those starting points beyond the if you can get them into the state, keep them here from there, is that where we have to start?

Rachel Judish: Absolutely, actually we just did an event last week at the Capitol, the Iowa Student Congress for the first time.  It was their first official very organized lobby attempt pertaining to student issues.  The state of Iowa does a great job of attracting college students as I'm sure you well know.  We're I think fourth in the nation if you go to the 2006 data at bringing people into the state for that college age.  The trick is tying them into those communities and really giving them that experience that makes them want to stay in Iowa.

Paul Yeager: But why would Iowa State want to keep that Illinois kid or that Missouri or Minnesota kid staying in the state?  What is in their interest to go that extra step?

Paul Lasley: Well, I think we have to look at it in terms of where we rank nationally in terms of growth.  I think you mentioned in your opening remarks, Paul, where we have about 15% of our state's population is over 65.  We have one of the lowest growth rates between 1990 and 2000 between the two most recent census' our population growth was only 5.4% so we actually are about three percentage points below any of our neighboring states. 

So, we're falling behind and part of that is a reflection of a higher proportion of elderly but the other thing that I think is terribly important as we think about bringing these students from other states using our universities as a magnet and President Geoffroy talked about becoming a magnet university but we have to do more than that, we have to not only get them here, get them a good education and provide them opportunities and a lot of kids come here maybe the first time that they really had to stay in Iowa.  A lot of people travel through Iowa but getting them to stay here, we need to show them what the quality of life in Iowa is all about. 

And we need to provide opportunities for young people to put down roots, to buy that first home, to become involved in community.  And many of the young people I talk to are really beginning to talk more about quality of life, not necessarily the quantity in terms of income. 

Housing costs in Iowa while they seem pretty expensive to those buying a home if you compare it nationally we're very, very competitive and likewise getting started in business.  Rachel, I don't know much about your family but the fact that you were able to get to buy into a business, you and your husband, so that you could get started I'm sure was a lot less getting started in Lakeview than it would have been if you would have remained in Chicago.

Rachel Judish: Absolutely, that was a deciding factor.  Taking off from that opportunity, you know, providing the education opportunities, the challenges, some of the wage gap issues that we see stems from a surplus of very qualified, educated individuals in many of the industries in this state.  So, simple supply and demand pushes the wages down so that's where it comes back to the economic development. 

Right now the education rate I believe it's 24% or is it 33% of the current generation that is going to have a bachelor's degree and I think only 12% to 15% of the state jobs requiring that level of education.  So, when you do the math you almost have to triple the level or number of jobs for bachelor's degree education in order to meet the current demand.

Paul Yeager: So, there needs to be jobs.  In the piece we talked about entrepreneurs whether they came to Elkader or Oxford occurring so we can also do some development through economic development and entrepreneurship as well is that what you're saying?

Rachel Judish: Absolutely, entrepreneurship is a great way to create your own position and I've seen western Iowa that's really a niche that was many of the people that were highlighted in those rural communities.  The positions are out there, just knowing and finding those positions is the hardest part I think.

Paul Lasley: I think we probably need to put more money into entrepreneurial, not only in entrepreneurial training but maybe more funding for entrepreneurs, for people who have got creative ideas regardless of age, I guess we'd like to see other people but people moved here originally to Iowa, they migrated to Iowa because there were opportunities to take up farming and start a small business. 

And unfortunately we've seen over the last several decades successful family-owned businesses and farms, mom and dad made a good living but when they get ready to retire there's no one to take over the business or the farm and I see that continuing.  What we need to do is figure out a better way to transition those family-owned businesses on Main Street 

One of the issues is how do we make Iowa then more attractive?  There's not much we can do about sort of the pull factor, the allure of the city ... and those family farms in the countryside so that there are opportunities.

Paul Yeager: Rachel, you've got to make a recommendation here to the legislature, is that some of the things that are going to be in the report or what are we going to see?

Rachel Judish: I was actually going to touch on that.  We did a survey this year that we had some national data that indicated that a competitive job with good wages is the number one deciding factor when someone decides where they're going to locate at, that exciting nightlife component was a tie-breaker on the national and on the survey of Iowans it was at the very bottom of all the possible areas.  The opportunities for mentorship, room for growth, job in the field, opportunity for advancement are ahead of the vibrant nightlife component.

Paul Yeager: What are you hoping with this report when it's presented?  What are you hoping the lawmakers do in response to what you're telling them?

Rachel Judish: We would really like them to take a look, a hard look at how the economic development incentives are created, that they're really gearing towards more of the higher education growth, like I mentioned Microsoft, Google, and continuing to take an interest in the cultural opportunities such as what they've done with the film industry with creating -- there's been a number of ...

Paul Yeager: Lots of film festivals ...

Rachel Judish: A lot of films period.  We had the Norwalk baseball movie and then they were filming in our area Peacock which was ten miles from where I live.

Paul Yeager: I'd really like to see Susan Sarandon, right, is that what that was?

Rachel Judish: It creates that cultural interest that sometimes Iowa is looked at not having towards the younger generation.

Paul Yeager: And we're down to just a couple of minutes here, Paul.  If you were to form an ad campaign, say the state comes to you and says, we're going to do an ad campaign about how we're going to try to bring people back or get people to come to Iowa, where do you start?

Paul Lasley: I would start land of opportunity.  I see the issues that many young couples tell me about, a safe place for their children, a safe place in terms of personal safety, lack of crime, lack of congestion, there's plenty of elbow room. 

You look at some of the reverse migration and people moving out of the city what are they looking for, a place they can call home, a place where they can enjoy the out of doors.  It may not be a mountain or a seashore but to just be able to enjoy the outdoors, to commune with nature, things like we're doing such things as bike trails, terrible important  We are blessed with water resources.

Paul Yeager: I've got to give 20 seconds to let Rachel answer that too.  Your campaign is land of opportunity.  Where do you go, Rachel?

Rachel Judish: I think we go with the trick is access and sharing the secrets of the opportunity.

Paul Yeager: So, go back to the one that we had a little bit and just expand upon it?

Rachel Judish: In a sense, I mean, you have the opportunities there, we do need additional opportunities.

Paul Yeager: Very good, I hate to cut you off.  See, we always get going.  That's Rachel Judish, she's chair of the Generation Iowa Commission and Paul Lasley, he's head of Iowa State University's Sociology Department.  Thank you so much for having this great discussion here on The Iowa Journal.

Tags: children economy entrepreneurs families Iowa jobs

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