In This Town, You Apply For A Job And You Get It

Ames, Iowa, has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. That's great for workers — but a challenge for those looking for them.

Tanisha Cortez is one of those benefiting from this tight labor market. The restaurant where Cortez worked closed in late November, so she went looking for a new job. She submitted applications to about half a dozen companies.

Almost right away, she got offers from every one of them. And she was working again at a new restaurant two weeks later. She will earn $2,000 more a year than she made at her old job.

Welcome to Ames, Iowa, where the unemployment rate is just 1.5% — less than half the national rate. Good employees here pretty much have their pick of jobs. Wages in Ames grew by 14.4% between 2013 and 2017, compared with 10.7% for the U.S.

So why are jobs so plentiful in this small city of more than 65,000 residents tucked amid farm fields 45 minutes north of Des Moines? One reason is that Ames is home to Iowa State University. College towns emerged from the Great Recession in stronger shape than other places, says Iowa State economist Peter Orazem.

"Where the U.S. economy is growing tends to be in the sorts of things that universities are typically good at producing — educated employees and research," he says.

Because of Iowa State, the Department of Energy operates a lab in Ames that employs more than 600 people. Ames is also home to a healthy sprinkling of technology companies. One of them is Workiva, a business software firm begun by two Iowa State Ph.D.s.

"We refer to this part of Iowa as the Silicon Prairie," quips Emily Forrester, vice president of human resources for Workiva. (It's not the only Midwestern city to claim a kinship to Silicon Valley.)

Companies such as Workiva provide the kind of high-wage jobs that cities like because they can help create other jobs. That's great for job-hunters, but not so good for employers.

Hickory Park, a family-style restaurant with a nostalgic decor, has a large "help wanted" sign along the highway out front. The sign has been there for two years, says manager Elizabeth Kopecky.

At one time, the restaurant only had to post a notice on the university job board and stacks of applications poured in, she says. These days, Hickory Park hires just about anyone who walks through the door.

Kopecky says landing a worker is tricky, often with little time to check references. "You almost have to hire people on the spot because they can go out this door and go anywhere in town and get a job," she says.

Last year, her restaurant turned down a request from a nearby competitor. It asked Hickory Park to send it some of its workers. "We didn't have enough for ourselves," Kopecky says.

There's another reason hiring here is so difficult: Like much of the Midwest, Iowa hasn't typically attracted a lot of newcomers. Its population has been stable for a long time, says Orazem, the economist. During the 2000s, 8% of 18- to 34-year-olds actually left Ames, he says.

"It's hard to get people to just show up in Iowa, right? Unless their planes have been diverted," Orazem jokes.

When the economy began to rebound, Ames didn't have enough workers to fill the jobs being created.

So, companies have to work overtime to lure workers.

Mary Greeley Medical Center is one of the region's largest employers. It's always looking for workers. The hospital sends recruiters to job fairs and networking events. It sells itself as a good place to work, says Penny Bellville, director of human resources.

"It takes a lot more diligence to market ourselves," she says. "We have to move a little quicker in order to make sure that person doesn't get another opportunity."

Workiva offers flex time, generous benefits and a nurturing workplace that includes a game room. There's a spacious atrium garden where employees can refresh their spirits when needed.

The tech company also tries to sell prospective hires on the area's quality of life. Ames may not boast a first-rate symphony orchestra or a major league baseball team, but it has good schools, little traffic and a relatively low cost of living.

"Here you can buy a home for $250,000 very easily. What would that get you in the Bay Area, for example?" Workiva's Forrester says.

Efforts like these have begun to pay off. Ames is finally starting to attract more workers, especially from other parts of Iowa. But it needs to do better, Orazem says.

"For Iowa to continue to expand, it has to be able to bring in people from other places," he says. "Whether it's people who are new arrivals to the United States or new arrivals from Illinois."

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