Iowa State University expert says smaller communities need to refocus on stopping population, workforce loss

CLEAR LAKE — The head of the Iowa State University Center for Industrial Research and Service says communities the size of the Mason City-Clear Lake area need to refocus the ways they recruit people to their area to increase the available workforce.

Dr. Ron Cox maintaining or growing the number of people wanting to be in the workforce in smaller communities and micropolitan areas has been an ongoing issue for a long time, not just during the pandemic.  “COVID didn’t cause these issues, it just kind of accelerated it. We’ve hired all the easy people to hire, and we’re going to have to change and look at workforce differently. We’re going to have to work harder. We’re going to have to work harder to retain people. We’re going to have to become better companies and better communities to keep our employees and continue to help them become more productive so we can grow our companies.”

Cox says the hard facts show that more people are wanting to be in larger metro areas like Des Moines and Minneapolis, which is making it tough for communities of the Mason City-Clear Lake size.   “That’s a trend that’s been happening around the world for 100-200 years, and that’s not going to change, but not everybody is moving to Chicago. Some fraction want to be in mid-sized towns, small towns, and you just have to be winning the wars against the thousands of other small towns that want those same people.”

Cox says while Mason City-Clear Lake development officials have a good plan to try to curb population and workforce loss, other areas our size are making similar plans.  “All the communities are stepping back and re-evaluating, and are developing multi-faceted plans, because one thing is not going to solve the problem. Pick your favorite thing, broadband or entertainment, you need it all. People want to live in thriving communities that have all what they consider essentials today.”

Cox says the plan formed by Mason City, Clear Lake, and Cerro Gordo County officials to address these issues is a good one. “I’m not an expert in economic development, but you have a multi-faceted plan, and you are attacking lots of different things. It’s just not marketing saying to move here, it’s trying to improve the things and listening to people in what they want and changing those things. It’s impressive all the things you have on the list to make better in the community.”

Cox, who lived for four years in Mason City while being a regional field agent for the Center for Industrial Research and Service before taking over as the center’s director, spoke to community leaders at the “State of North Iowa” presentation earlier today held at the new Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott in Clear Lake.

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