DES MOINES — The Iowa Business Council, which includes leaders of Iowa’s biggest companies, may take a position on immigration for the first time to support strategies that bring more people of color to the state.
Only five states are less diverse than Iowa, which has 14.1 percent ethnic diversity, according to the council’s 2019 “competitive dashboard,” released Monday. That lack of diversity hurts Iowa’s economic growth in the long-run, Executive Director Georgia Van Gundy said.
“We have not had a position on immigration in the past,” Van Gundy said. “That’s something we’re going to tease out. Our members want to look at all options available to bring folks into our state.”
The competitive dashboard, which the Business Council has produced since 2011, shows how Iowa measures up with other states in five categories: Economic growth, education and workforce, governance, health and wellness, and demographics and diversity. These factors influence how likely Iowa is recruit companies and help it grow.
The council gave the state an “average” score in four of the five categories and “poor” in demographics and diversity.
“A lot of them fell because we were outpaced by other states,” Van Gundy said. “It’s not that we were doing worse ourselves.”
Iowa remains strong in governance, ranked fifth among best-run states — down from third in 2017 — and rose in the rankings from 13th to 10th for having 81.6 percent of the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System being funded.
Iowa maintained its No. 2 spot for ACT scores, with an average score of 21.8 for the class of 2018, behind South Dakota at 21.9. These scores are among states that have at least half the graduates taking the test.
On the downside, Iowa lost ground on the state technology and science index, going from 43.5 percent of the population having science or technology jobs in 2017 to 38.8 percent in 2018.
“The workforce we have in Iowa around science and technology is critical to Iowa, and it’s critical to the nation and the security of the nation,” said Phil Jasper, leader of the Mission Systems business unit at Collins Aerospace in Cedar Rapids, a council member.
Collins Aerospace works with universities to shape the curriculum so graduates will have in-demand skills and hires interns and externs to give them early experience, Jasper said. The company supports STEM activities in K-12 schools, he said.
Jasper, who grew up near Lamont and graduated from Iowa State University, said he wants Iowa students to know if they work hard in science and technology they can find good jobs here.
But he also wants the state to have all the tools necessary to recruit workers from other countries.
One tool is the H-1B visa, which allows highly skilled workers to come to the United States to fill specific jobs. But these visas are capped at 85,000 a year, and new restrictions were implemented last year.
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Jasper and Van Gundy said H-1B visas will be among topics the council will discuss when coming up with a position on immigration.
The council uses the dashboard data to develop priorities for the year and shares the information with legislators, communities and other business leaders, Van Gundy said.
“A particular one (goal) we have this year is supporting workforce housing,” she said.
Council leaders traveled to Boone, Le Mars and Muscatine last year and heard from business leaders that there isn’t enough affordable housing in rural Iowa for permanent employees or interns.
Terry Handley, president and CEO of Casey’s General Stores, said most of the corporation’s stores in Iowa are in communities of less than 5,000 people. However, that population is moving from those rural communities to metropolitan Iowa.
“For too long we’ve been quiet about all our state has to offer,” Handley said at a news conference Monday in Des Moines. “It is critical that all of Iowa — rural, suburban, metro — see population growth otherwise the shortage of workers will constrain Iowa business in the future.”
The council also recommends Iowa companies and communities “reinvigorate” efforts to support the Healthiest State initiative after Iowa scored poorly in several health and wellness metrics.
Iowa fell in state rankings for the percentage of the population that is obese, for example, going from 37 in 2017 to 47 last year. With an obesity rate of 36.4 percent — up from 32 percent in 2017 — Iowa is better off than only three states — Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia.
“For some reason, Iowa is jumping more than others,” said Erin Olson, community health consultant for the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Not only do cold winters make it harder to exercise, but Iowa is more rural than many other states, Olson said.
Small-town residents may not have access to as many recreational opportunities or healthy food. Large swathes of rural Iowa are considered “food deserts,” a low-income census tract with low access to grocery stores.
Iowa is 36th in the nation for the number of primary care physicians, with 82.8 per 100,000 people.
The IBC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose 23 members are CEOs and senior executives at of major Iowa employers. One in six jobs in Iowa are tied to an IBC company.
Lee-Gazette Des Moines Bureau reporter James Q. Lynch contributed to this article.