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Contradictions Between Iowa, Illinois Show Uneven Employment


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Tomorrow morning, the Labor Department will release its latest data on jobs. Results can vary dramatically from state to state, even among states right next to each other.

Mike Moen of member station WNIJ has this story about booming Iowa and hard-hit Illinois.

MIKE MOEN, BYLINE: Illinois and Iowa are separated by the Mississippi River. It only takes a very short drive over a bridge to get to either side. While these Midwestern States have many similarities, a noticeable difference has emerged. Illinois' jobless rate, which sits at 9.3 percent, has remained stuck above the national average of seven and a half. Iowa, on the other hand, has enjoyed a much lower unemployment rate of below 5 percent.

The city of Clinton, Iowa, rests along the big river. This community hasn't exactly flourished like other parts of the state, but small business owner Tim Clark says he's benefited from what he thinks makes Iowa attractive to the business community: a strong workforce.

TIM CLARK: There are people that you can hire, and, you know, they're very hands on, and they'll be able to pick up and do the particular jobs that they're assigned very easily.

MOEN: Clark runs a home appliance store in downtown Clinton. He says he's never struggled to find qualified workers. He believes that kind of hiring stability can be found by businesses throughout the state.

CLARK: They know that they got people that are well-educated. They got people that are willing to work and to stay with a business once they do get there.

MOEN: Discussion about available jobs and the quality of workforce is a little different when you head east.

After you get in the car and cross the border, it won't take you long to get into Morrison. The county that surrounds this Illinois city has an unemployment rate of 8 percent.

Economist Norm Walzer is with the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University. He says when comparing neighboring states and their economies, it's important to look at the structure of their industries. Iowa has been able to maintain a strong agricultural base, but it's seen growth in other areas, including biotechnology. Illinois also does well in agriculture, but Walzer says it has older industries that aren't performing as well, including manufacturing.

Walzer also says Illinois continues to battle an image problem created by legislative gridlock involving the state's budget mess, and Walzer says there is an issue with the business climate.

NORM WALZER: If you look at the major national indices or, you know, business climate indices, Illinois does not score well on quite a few of them.

MOEN: And when it comes to manufacturing, Walzer says the area has suffered losses in assembly jobs in recent years, and displaced workers here need more access to job training.

WALZER: They really didn't have the same skills that are needed for the new advanced manufacturing techniques.

MOEN: Linda Hines lives near Morrison. She feels there are better job opportunities in neighboring Iowa, along with greater access to training. She says her husband had to look across the border when he lost his job in Illinois.

LINDA HINES: My husband works at Alcoa on the Iowa side because of that, because there's nothing around here.

MOEN: Meanwhile, longtime Morrison resident Ron Copeland says he questions any belief that his community doesn't have a strong enough workforce. He says when local factories shut down, including the GE plant, it affected many quality people who were simply unprepared for the new jobs environment.

RON COPELAND: There were a lot of people who were employed at General Electric on the line who had good skills, but those were primarily older workers.

MOEN: Economist Norm Walzer says the area does have a lot of good selling points, like nearby interstates and low wages, and he thinks an upgrade of the workforce is on the horizon.

WALZER: The community colleges, the career centers and others have kind of gotten the message, and they're now coming together and trying to put together some sort of training programs.

MOEN: And maybe that will help to make unemployment a little more even in this part of the country. For NPR News, I'm Mike Moen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.