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."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The United States is enjoying a strong economy with a low unemployment rate. But there is low and there's really, really low. NPR's Jim Zarroli recently visited a city in Iowa where the job market is so tight that workers pretty much have their pick of jobs, and they're seeing wages rise as a result. He prepared this report as part of NPR's series on the full-employment economy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Two orders of cheese balls, and then...
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Hickory Park in Ames, Iowa, is a sprawling, family-style restaurant with a nostalgia theme. There's an old-fashioned soda fountain and jars of what used to be called penny candy out front. I went in there because of a help wanted sign on the highway outside. Manager Elizabeth Kopecky told me, these days, Hickory Park is always looking for workers.
ELIZABETH KOPECKY: That sign - we have never hung a sign out in front of our building ever.
ZARROLI: That sign says, help wanted - all positions.
ZARROLI: And you're saying that's been there for a little while.
KOPECKY: Two years - used to be just kitchen, but now it's, like, all positions.
ZARROLI: Welcome to Ames. It's a small city surrounded by farm fields, and it happens to have the country's hottest job market. Economist Peter Orazem says the unemployment rate is almost unprecedented.
PETER ORAZEM: One point five percent in Ames. They actually reported 0.9% at one time, and I don't even know what that means.
ZARROLI: Orazem says the job market is strong here, in part because Iowa State, where he teaches, is located here. Because of Iowa State, some tech companies have set up shop here, and there's a big federal energy department lab that's generated jobs.
EMIILY FORRESTER: We refer to this part of Iowa as the silicon prairie.
ZARROLI: Emily Forrester is human resources director at Workiva, a software company started by a couple of Iowa State Ph.D.s. Ames doesn't typically attract a lot of tech workers, and Workiva offers Silicon Valley-style perks to find employees.
FORRESTER: We provide gourmet lunches to everyone in our Ames headquarters office for $5 a day.
ZARROLI: Workiva offers flex time, generous family leave. You can bring your dog to work. Places such as Workiva pay really well from the Midwest, and that's filtered through the economy of Ames as a whole. Health care and service workers are in huge demand.
I found Tanisha Cortez working at a restaurant. She's an assistant manager and wears a lot of different hats. Cortez went looking for a job last November. She answered about a half dozen ads. Every single place offered her a job.
TANISHA CORTEZ: I think you could find a job very fast here because I put in applications for actually a few places, and they all got in contact with me.
ZARROLI: And the job she took paid $2,000 a year more than her old one. That's typical. Wages are rising in Ames faster than the rest of the state. That's great for workers and not so great for employers. At Hickory Park, Elizabeth Kopecky is getting ready for the dinner hour. She darts around the restaurant floor checking schedules and running the cash register. Kopecky has been at Hickory Park for 40 years. She says it was once easy to find workers in Ames. You just posted something on the university job board.
KOPECKY: Before, we never, ever had to even barely advertise for staff. And you had applicants - stacks and stacks of applicants to go through. And you had to choose which ones out of great applicants because you didn't need a whole lot.
ZARROLI: These days, the restaurant hires just about anyone who walks in the door. It doesn't even have time to check their references. And still there aren't enough workers. She used to hire eight or 10 hosts to greet patrons. These days, she's getting by with four, even though the restaurant is really busy. Everyone has to multitask. And Kopecky says all of Hickory Park's competitors are in the same boat.
KOPECKY: We last year had a call from a restaurant down the street asking if we had any extra staff that they could share. That's how bad it's getting.
ZARROLI: And what did you tell them?
KOPECKY: That we didn't have enough for ourselves.
ZARROLI: There's another reason why it's so hard to find workers in Ames. Economist Peter Orazem says the local population hasn't grown a lot over the years. With its brutal winters, Iowa doesn't attract a lot of outsiders.
ORAZEM: It's hard to get people just to show up in Iowa - right? - I mean, you know, unless their planes have been diverted.
ZARROLI: For years, Ames was actually losing young people. So when the economy grows, like it is now, there aren't enough workers. Employers in Ames typically try to lure people by playing up the quality of life. Orazem says the nearest major league baseball team is four hours away. But the schools are good. There's little traffic. And Workiva's Emily Forrester says, just look at that cost of living.
FORRESTER: Here, you could buy a home for $250,000 very easily. What would that get you in the Bay Area, for example?
ZARROLI: But Peter Orazem says Ames, like the state as a whole, has to work harder to attract people.
ORAZEM: For Iowa to continue to expand, it has to be able to bring in people from other places, whether it's people who are new arrivals to the United States or new arrivals from Illinois.
ZARROLI: Orazem says Ames is starting to attract a lot of workers from rural Iowa. But there's probably a limit to how many people can be lured to Ames right now. That's because unemployment is almost as low all over the Midwest and in much of the country as well.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.