Around the country, and especially in central Iowa, the low unemployment rate has slowly but surely tipped the balance of power away from employers and towards workers, who here in the Hawkeye State have been able to demand higher wages, better working conditions, more generous benefits, training programs, and myriad other perks. “From a per-capita [population] perspective, we are the fastest-growing metro in the entire Midwest,” said Mary Bontrager, an executive at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a regional economic-development group. “In terms of GDP, we’re outpacing every other Midwestern metropolitan area.”
Competition for workers has gone crazy, Joe McConville, who co-owns a popular chain of made-from-scratch pizza restaurants, told me. “At almost every restaurant that I’ve worked at, you always had a stack of applications waiting,” he said. “You’d call somebody up and half the time they're still looking for an extra job. That’s not happening anymore.” He said he faced a “black hole” in terms of finding more experienced twenty-something employees, and that to compete he has paid out higher wages and added vacation days.
More than that, Iowa’s tight labor market has forced employers to offer training, reach out to new populations of workers, and accept applications from workers they might not have before — expanding and up-skilling the labor pool as a whole as a result. “Their attitude really seems to be changing,” said Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher of Central Iowa Works, a workforce-development nonprofit. “They are looking at populations differently, who they should be looking at when they have jobs to fill, or people being screened out for things that really don't have an effect on the job.”
Among those seeing more success getting hired are the formerly incarcerated. When the jobless rate is high, most businesses refuse to look at applications from individuals who have spent time in prison — even for non-violent offenses, or for incidents that might have occurred years and years earlier. That was what Clifford Salmond found after being released a few years ago. “I couldn't find a decent job because of my background and my past. I've had alcohol problems, drug problems, incarceration problems,” he told me while he ate breakfast at a local McDonald’s. “Once I got that behind me, I still found finding employment pretty hard.” He found work washing dishes, but became unemployed again after the restaurant he was working at closed down.
But his daughter connected him with a training program, which he completed. In time, that led to a position at a factory in Des Moines. “I take the raw rubber and I break it down,” he explained. “I send it over to be [combined] in a machine with fabric. That leaves the machine, and goes to the tire builders, and they build the tire.” He said the work was hot, dirty, and physically exhausting, but still that he loved the job, where he now earns $21 an hour, as well as health benefits.