Ames employers point to 'The Great Resignation' as one factor contributing to ongoing labor shortage

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune
A COVID-19 patient is wheeled into the ICU at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames on Dec. 10, 2020.

The labor shortage being felt across the country is forcing companies — including many across central Iowa — to be more innovative as they counter the problem of fewer workers.

“There’s this notion that there’s a lot of people who are on a variety of financial assistance and they haven’t returned to work yet,” Dan Culhane, president and CEO of the Ames Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Commission, told the Ames Tribune. “I can’t point directly to that, but we continue to hear from our employers that they need people and there’s a shortage in every facet of our economy.”

It’s a shortage that reaches well beyond Ames, Story County and even Iowa, he said.

“It’s actually international. It’s a problem around the world right now,” Culhane said.

Part of the shortage comes from a phenomenon that some are calling “The Great Resignation,” he said. People who were getting close to the end of their careers realized during the pandemic that they could afford to quit working entirely, and most won't return to the workforce.

More:Where do Ames' workers live, and how far do they commute? A new study will offer answers.

Nurse Amanda Baetsle prepares a syringe while working at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames on Feb. 12, 2021.

It’s causing innovation among many businesses, such as manufacturers, moving to automation to make up for the lost workers.

“In a lot of respects, this isn’t going away,” Culhane said. “Fast food restaurants, for example — instead of having someone at the counter — might become completely automated and just have people working in the kitchen.

“This is going to force a lot of businesses to think differently about how they operate.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the civilian labor force in Ames stood at 58,100 in November, up from 54,000 in June. For that labor force, unemployment was at 1.8%, or about 1,100 people, in November, down from 3.7%, or approximately 2,000 workers, in June.

Statewide, the labor force had increased to 1,660,900 in November from 1,654,600 in June. Iowa’s unemployment rate was 3.7% in November, a decrease from 4% in June.

Retiring baby boomers fuel nursing shortage

Officials at Mary Greeley Medical Center say the hospital has job openings in almost every department.

“We are struggling with the same lack of a labor pool that every other organization is — both in town and everywhere else,” said Penny Bellville, the hospital's director of human resources. “And in nursing, especially, there is more demand than there is supply.”

More:Mary Greeley, Iowa State launch partnership to combat nationwide nursing shortage

Nurse Amanda Baetsle enters information into a patient's chart at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, Iowa, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

Nurses are retiring faster than they are being added to the workforce, she said.

“Labor statistics project that there are fewer nurses coming into the workforce than there are going out with the baby boomers who are retiring,” Bellville said.

At the same time, the demand for health care services is going up as baby boomers get older.

Dr. Kirk Peterson saw a dramatic decrease in his Huxley clinic’s nursing staff during the pandemic. At its lowest, the UnityPoint clinic was down to three medical assistants from its usual eight.

As the associate medical director in charge of the Huxley location and six other facilities in the Des Moines metro area, Peterson said he’s seen similar challenges faced by other clinics.

A family practice physician, Peterson himself took on some of the tasks normally performed by his medical assistants — for example, taking blood pressure readings, doing prescription refills.

One of Peterson’s solutions was to share staff between the locations he oversees when particular offices were short of nurses.

“I think people in the medical system were concerned about COVID and they had the ability to not work due to the extended unemployment benefits that were available,” he said. “It’s not all about the unemployment benefits, but I think a lot of it, with that stopping, has people looking for jobs again.”

The Huxley clinic is still down three nurses, but that’s a better situation than being down five, and Peterson is optimistic that the situation will continue to improve.

Huxley coffee shop provides bright spot

As workforce issues still loom locally and across the country, there are some bright spots.

Help-wanted signs hanging in drive-thrus and on restaurant doors indicate there is still a shortage of staff for many local bars and eateries. But Scooter’s Coffee, a drive-thru coffee shop in Huxley that opened in October, is fully staffed and has retained 26 employees to date.

“Things are going really well,” said Deb Auen, one of the owners. “It’s just been a pleasant, wonderful surprise. We have such quality people — interested people who want to work for us. And we continue to keep getting applications.”

Located on Highway 69, Scooter’s is open from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. That schedule's been a factor for the coffee shop’s employees, Auen said — the shifts work well for many lifestyles but don’t involve late-night hours.

More:Huxley's new Scooter’s drive-thru serving up coffee, smoothies, pastries and puppuccinos

The staff at Scooter's Coffee in Huxley springs into action as an order comes in from the drive-thru Dec. 8, 2021. Pictured are, left to right, Jaedyn Paulson, manager Jessica McKinney, Chris Wise and Ali Buban.

“I thought it might be a disadvantage to be open so early, but really it was an opportunity,” Auen said. “And the fact that we close early is an opportunity for students in high school and college to get to work during their non-education hours but still get home in time to study or do what they need to in the evenings.”

High school student Ali Buban was the first staff member to ask for those early morning shifts, giving her time to earn some money before she picked up her siblings and headed for school, Auen said.

“It’s a good staff with good people and they enjoy working with each other,” she said.