Iowa has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. The tight job market is creating challenges in filling open positions. Employers are seeking skills that many job seekers don’t have. 

  • 55% of all jobs in central Iowa require training or education beyond a high school diploma but less than an associate degree. 
  • 32% of central Iowa’s workforce has these skills.

Below are specific challenges central Iowa’s workforce faces—issues that Central Iowa Works is focused on addressing.


Central Iowa’s Skills Gap

Many factors lead to central Iowa’s skills gap:

  • Some students struggle to find meaningful career pathways and drop out before earning a high school diploma. 35,000 central Iowa adults do not have a high school diploma, and one in four of them live at or below the federal poverty level. (U.S. Census).
  • Job seekers may need additional knowledge and training to gain the skills employers are looking for, or they may need support connecting with the right jobs that match their skills and learning how to present themselves during the hiring process.
  • Hiring practices can keep strong candidates from applying for jobs, or employers may overlook certain job seekers—especially minorities, those with disabilities, and those with a criminal record.


Industry Challenges

Specific industries in central Iowa especially face challenges in attracting talent that can serve our community’s needs now and in the future.

Health Care

The health care and social assistance sector grew 12.9 percent from 2006-2014. Meanwhile, 40 percent of central Iowa’s health care workers could retire in the next 5-10 years, creating a huge shortage in workers who can fill positions that are critical to providing healthcare to central Iowans. Healthcare jobs pay an average wage of more than $41,000, giving more central Iowans who have the right training an opportunity to become financially stable. In addition, the field has an opportunity to hire minority populations that represent the community it serves. (Iowa Workforce Development)



Retail and Service 

Central Iowa has a larger share of people employed in the retail, service, and hospitality industries than in the state and nation, but employers struggle to fill entry-level, service-heavy jobs. In particular, employers say it is challenging to find employees who have soft skills and professionalism, while employees struggle with constantly changing schedules and child care and transportation options outside of normal work hours.



Untapped Talent

Central Iowa has job seekers who could gain the education and skills needed to fill jobs, but several barriers prevent them from accessing those opportunities. The following groups especially struggle to enter good jobs:

New Iowans

40 percent of Iowa’s population growth since 2010 has come from immigration (The Gazette, 2018). The top challenges New Iowans face is a lack of English skills, cultural differences, navigating health care, and finding transportation and child care. (USCRI and Catholic Charities). Many refugees and immigrants have education and skills that are not recognized in the United States or they may struggle to find opportunities. Yet they possess many strengths, including the ability to speak multiple languages and to share rich experiences.


Each year, 5,000 citizens return to Iowa after serving time in state prisons. One year after release, 60 percent of people convicted of a crime are not employed (National Institute of Justice).  

Many ex-offenders talk about being offered a well-paying, full-time job after going through the hiring process and then having that offer taken away once a background check is complete. Or, hiring managers ask upfront whether the applicant has been convicted of a crime. As a result, returning citizens are often stuck in a series of part-time or minimum-wage positions or fall back into criminal habits to earn enough money to survive.

The cost of not having a job and being able to re-establish themselves in our community is great. Most people released from prisons are re-arrested within three years, and 70 percent of children with an incarcerated parent will follow in their parent’s footsteps.


People with Disabilities

11.8 percent of central Iowans have a disability. People with disabilities may be kept out of the hiring process because of requirements that can be accommodated, and many individuals with disabilities can bring unique strengths to positions. 

African Americans

14.8 percent of Polk County’s African American population is unemployed, compared with 3.9 percent of the total population. The average median household income is nearly double for Polk County’s entire population than it is for just African Americans. One workforce challenge is that central Iowa has a higher rate of incarceration among African Americans than the rest of the nation, which creates a huge barrier to employment.



The Cost to Central Iowa

When jobs are left unfilled, employers lose productivity and the ability to grow and serve customers. Our economy struggles to grow at the rate it has in the past several years, especially in a job market that is reaching full employment.

Many potential workers live in poverty and are piecing together jobs to get by. Use of food pantries has increased over the past year as central Iowans have struggled to cover all their basic needs, including housing, child care, transportation, and food. 

One in three central Iowans do not earn enough to pay for basic needs and save. 


New Solutions

Learn how we are uniting our community to tackle these challenges in multiple ways.