Today’s Workforce Requires More Than Jobs

It was a loss I hadn’t expected. Growing up, my neighbor and I were best friends. We spent most of our summers playing backyard baseball, exploring the nearby woods, riding our bikes down the road to fish what I now realize are industrial sediment ponds. I guess it’s good we never caught much.

He was a couple years older than I was and on the first day I started riding the school bus as an awkward new middle-schooler, he invited me to one of the coveted seats with the upper-classmen (read: cool kids) at the back of the bus. It was a small kindness that I’ve never forgotten.

That’s just how he was. It’s one of the reasons I was sad to see him and his family leave the very town I assumed guys like us would spend a lifetime in. They were yet another young, community-active Burlington family relocating to the likes of Polk County and the lure of the Des Moines metro area.

It’s not so much the fact that an old friend moved away. I can’t say we were even close friends anymore as we rarely interacted outside of passive social media followings. Families and careers have a way of shifting one’s social circles. Such is life.

What really bothers me is that their leaving is yet another loss in an ongoing migration of young professional types from towns like Burlington. Meanwhile, community leaders complain that we can’t fill jobs, that local companies are foregoing expansions for lack of workforce, and stagnant or shrinking populations put further strains on already-tight municipal budgets.

The struggle to recruit and retain talent isn’t unique to southeast Iowa. It’s a national epidemic among towns and states, especially in the Midwest. And while I certainly don’t have all the answers, I do think there are ways we could help overcome the problem a little better simply by shifting priorities.

In the field of wildlife management, you alter populations largely by altering habitat. I can’t help but wonder if this same concept would work for our towns and cities.

What would happen if we focused our efforts on creating the types of places where people want to live? What if we invested more in parks and trails and bike routes and greenspace and beautifying our neighborhoods? What if we assumed that where we decide to “make a living” is secondary to where we first decide to live?

There’s some interesting research to back this up. Iowa Workforce Development polled more than 8,600 college students to find out what they’re looking for in the places they’ll eventually establish their lives and careers. Disturbingly, only 46 percent indicated they’re likely to stay in Iowa. But across the board, students stated that a “clean environment that is suitable to live in” is highly important. In other words, this quality of life measure was more important to them than tax rates, wages and benefits, crime rates, or proximity to family and friends.

The American Planning Association published a national poll that found today’s workforce believes that investing in local quality of life amenities is the key to growing communities rather than traditional business recruitment strategies. It also found that there is growing demand for alternative transportation options, especially bike routes and trails.

A study recently conducted by the Iowa Tourism Office found that natural resources and outdoor recreation are consistently cited as factors influencing peoples’ decisions to visit or move to Iowa.

There is other research with similar findings, but you get the idea. If you look at the Iowa counties that are winning the battle for talent, you’ll notice that they’re also investing heavily in the very quality of life features that today’s workforce demands. Voters in Polk, Linn, and Johnson counties have all passed their own local bonds directing tens of millions of dollars to local park and natural resource projects. Today, seven of the ten fastest growing counties in the state are either one of those three, or immediately adjacent to them.

It wouldn’t be a silver bullet, I get that, but what if we focused more on creating and improving our parks, creating and connecting our bike and walking routes, expanding outdoor recreation opportunities and improving the environment in which we live? Certainly it would improve the lives of us that already live here. Maybe it would keep more of our friends, family, and educated young people from leaving. Maybe it would inspire others to move here. Maybe it would help fill jobs and incentivize local businesses to expand. Maybe it would slow, or even reverse our ongoing population loss resulting in a larger tax base and improved budgets. Maybe it would make a difference.

Maybe it’s worth a try.

This is a modified piece that originally appeared in my "Living Land" column in The Hawk Eye.

Like these posts? Subscribe here to get future Outdoor Executive Dad posts sent right to your inbox.