With Just 1.5% Unemployment, Ames, Iowa, Is Desperate For Workers Ames, Iowa, has an unemployment rate of 1.5%, making it the tightest job market in the country. That's great for workers — but a challenge for those looking for them.
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In This Town, You Apply For A Job And You Get It

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In This Town, You Apply For A Job And You Get It

In This Town, You Apply For A Job And You Get It

In This Town, You Apply For A Job And You Get It

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/721086615/727190946" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Tanisha Cortez waits on a table at a restaurant in Ames, Iowa. When the previous restaurant she worked for closed, Cortez applied to others and had job offers right away. Jobs are plentiful in Ames, a small city of more than 65,000 residents tucked amid farm fields north of Des Moines. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

Tanisha Cortez waits on a table at a restaurant in Ames, Iowa. When the previous restaurant she worked for closed, Cortez applied to others and had job offers right away. Jobs are plentiful in Ames, a small city of more than 65,000 residents tucked amid farm fields north of Des Moines.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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.

Cortez answers a call from a customer. She's earning $2,000 more a year than she made at her old job. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

Cortez answers a call from a customer. She's earning $2,000 more a year than she made at her old job.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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.

Emily Forrester (left), vice president of human resources for Workiva, chats with a colleague and new summer intern. Forrester oversees much of the company headquarters' general hiring, including more than 80 interns each year. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

Emily Forrester (left), vice president of human resources for Workiva, chats with a colleague and new summer intern. Forrester oversees much of the company headquarters' general hiring, including more than 80 interns each year.

Olivia Sun for NPR

"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.)

Forrester (left) looks over a training report with a colleague. Forrester says the company has to offer benefits like flex time and gourmet lunches to lure workers to the agricultural and college town of Ames. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

Forrester (left) looks over a training report with a colleague. Forrester says the company has to offer benefits like flex time and gourmet lunches to lure workers to the agricultural and college town of Ames.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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.

Hickory Park, a family-style restaurant, is known for its vintage decor, friendly staff and extensive dessert bar. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

Hickory Park, a family-style restaurant, is known for its vintage decor, friendly staff and extensive dessert bar.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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.

Elizabeth Kopecky, a manager at Hickory Park, stands outside the restaurant. She says hiring is tricky, often with little time to check references. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

Elizabeth Kopecky, a manager at Hickory Park, stands outside the restaurant. She says hiring is tricky, often with little time to check references.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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.

About 16,000 guests are served at Hickory Park each week. At one time, all the restaurant had to do to fill positions was post a notice on the university job board and stacks of applications poured in, Kopecky says. These days, the restaurant hires just about anyone who walks through the door. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

About 16,000 guests are served at Hickory Park each week. At one time, all the restaurant had to do to fill positions was post a notice on the university job board and stacks of applications poured in, Kopecky says. These days, the restaurant hires just about anyone who walks through the door.

Olivia Sun for NPR

"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.

The "help wanted" sign outside Hickory Park has been there for two years, Kopecky says. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

The "help wanted" sign outside Hickory Park has been there for two years, Kopecky says.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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."

Forrester checks in with members of the "HR Ops pod" at Workiva. The company tries to sell prospective hires on the area's quality of life along with generous benefits. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

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Olivia Sun for NPR

Forrester checks in with members of the "HR Ops pod" at Workiva. The company tries to sell prospective hires on the area's quality of life along with generous benefits.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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.

Servers clear off a booth at Hickory Park. Like much of the Midwest, Iowa hasn't typically attracted a lot of newcomers, and its population has been stable for a long time, says Iowa State economist Peter Orazem. That contributes to the tight job market. Olivia Sun for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Olivia Sun for NPR

Servers clear off a booth at Hickory Park. Like much of the Midwest, Iowa hasn't typically attracted a lot of newcomers, and its population has been stable for a long time, says Iowa State economist Peter Orazem. That contributes to the tight job market.

Olivia Sun for NPR

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."