Clinton Vos' phone started to ring more often four months ago.
A used equipment trader in Newton, Iowa, Vos heard from farmers and dealership representatives, desperate for the tractors his company finds at auctions around the country. Corn and soybean prices were taking off, and industry players needed new implements after holding out for years through trade wars, floods and a pandemic.
But implements were hard to come by, Vos said. Manufacturers haven't been able to ramp up production to meet demand. He heard new orders came with six-month waits. And farmers stopped selling their used equipment, aware they wouldn't be able to snag a replacement for a while.
"I don't know if I've ever seen the market this strong," said Vos, a 35-year industry veteran and owner of Mid-Iowa Equipment.
Deere & Co., one of the biggest agricultural equipment manufacturers, reported an $8.1 billion backlog in agricultural and turf equipment orders in November, a 32% increase over the same period the year before. For the quarter that ended in January, the company reported year-over-year sales were up more than 20% for agricultural and construction equipment. Yet it says it can't find enough workers to meet the current demand.
Plant managers said they've added 480 employees this year in Waterloo, Iowa, where the company produces its large tractors. But they want to hire another 120 right now. And, come November, they project demand will necessitate 200 more hires – if they can find enough able bodies.
In Dubuque, Iowa, where the company produces forestry and construction equipment, Deere has hired about 50 workers this year. Plant managers said they're looking for 50 more.
"We haven't seen as much interest as we have in the past," said Mark Onderick, the company's labor relations manager at the Dubuque plant. "In the past, it felt like we got just flooded."
'If Deere wants people, Deere gets people'
Iowa's shallow labor pool is leaving other companies thirsty for workers as well. Spokespeople for Winnebago Industries, Sukup Manufacturing and HNI Corp. told the Des Moines Register, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, that they're struggling to find enough workers to meet their hiring targets.
While labor shortages are not new in Iowa, where population growth hasn't kept pace with the national average for more than a century, experts were surprised by the degree of the problem at a time when so many people are out of work.
Sixty-five thousand fewer Iowans held jobs in March compared with March 2020, just before the start of the pandemic recession, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their ranks include 6,200 workers from durable goods manufacturing, the fourth-hardest-hit sector in Iowa during the downturn.
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Experts were particularly surprised to hear that Deere couldn't find enough employees. A household name, with union representation from the United Auto Workers and a starting hourly wage of $19, Deere has been one of the Midwest's premier manufacturing employers.
"If Deere wants people, Deere gets people," said Ronald Cox, director of Iowa State University's Center for Industrial Research and Service. "Deere is Deere. This is Iowa. People leave other companies to go work for Deere. If Deere is having problems, it's much broader than them."
Multiple issues could be driving the shortage. Some companies and politicians have blamed the federal government's COVID-19 relief packages, which provided direct checks to residents and boosted unemployment insurance payments.
With an extra $300 a week from the federal government, some Iowans can earn more on unemployment than they would as new Deere employees. But a full-time job brings the promise of benefits like health insurance, retirement contributions and tuition reimbursement. And workers on unemployment must show they've made contact regarding at least two jobs a week to continue receiving payments.
Despite so many laid-off workers, Iowa State University economist Peter Orazem said manufacturers may not be able to find the right types of job applicants. While the Waterloo metro shed about 4,800 jobs during the pandemic, the majority were in hospitality, education, health care and government.
Another 87,000 workers across the state have dropped out of the labor force during the pandemic. These are Iowans who are no longer looking for work and, in theory, most of them do not qualify for unemployment insurance. Orazem said many of these workers may have retired early; are staying at home because they fear contracting COVID-19; or are looking after their children after declining to send them to school this year.
Despite all of this, he was unsure why Deere can't hire more employees right now.
"They pay well and have good benefits," he said. "... Those were the types of jobs you wanted when you graduated high school, to go work for John Deere. I am puzzled."
Some workers wary of cyclical nature of Deere jobs
When Deere held a job fair in Waterloo on March 6, it drew about 400 applicants. A month later, the company held another.
Randy Venzke, the labor relations manager at the Waterloo plant, said about 80 applicants showed up for the second event. Then 50 showed up for a third. Just five showed up for a fourth.
Like other managers at the company, Venzke wasn't used to a shortage of resumes. He recalled a drive to hire 550 employees in Dubuque in 2017. The company didn't need a fair back then, he said. It simply posted openings on online job boards and took out ads in the local newspaper.
"We're kind of the premier employer," Venzke said. "Family members refer their relatives to come and work in the same place they have for generations."
This year, the company has expanded its reach. It has tried to partner with chambers of commerce and churches. It's pitched stories to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier and KCRG-TV. It hired Two Rivers Marketing in Des Moines to target workers with Google and Facebook ads. It offered current employees bonuses for referring workers who maintain their employment for at least 100 days.
"These are great jobs, great opportunities for the right people," Venzke said. "I'd love any ideas, any suggestions on how to generate more interest."
The current struggles have made some Deere officials wonder about long-term prospects for operating big plants in Iowa communities.
The company is trying to prepare the next generation of workers, partnering with high schools and community colleges to promote its jobs and show students how they can qualify for positions with the company. Employers also are targeting military members whose service is ending.
Still, the current demographics are staring them in the face. While the Des Moines and Iowa City metros grew about twice as fast as the United States overall during the past decade, according to census estimates, Waterloo's population remained flat, and Dubuque's grew about half as fast as the rest of the country.
Overall, Iowa grew 4.8% over the decade, the 2020 census found, while the U.S. grew 7.4%.
"It's going to be a pretty strategic risk to continue to manufacture in Iowa if we don't demonstrate that we have a manufacturing workforce that's sustainable," said Becky Guinn, the Deere factory manager in Waterloo.
"It’s going to have to be other people moving in to support it," said Mark Dickson, the Deere factory manager in Dubuque. "I don't know where they’re going to come from. Something's going to happen there, or it's just going to slow down. The demand can be there. But if there's not supply, eventually the demand goes down."
Despite these broader challenges, there are still workers in the area. Some are looking at agricultural manufacturing jobs and turning them down, telling the Des Moines Register they're worried they will get laid off when the economy slows again.
Indeed, manufacturing employment can be cyclical. Deere, for instance, gave notice to the state in 2016 that it was laying off 115 workers. The company issued a similar notice last summer, alerting the state it was laying off 35 employees, though company officials said they later hired those workers back. It also periodically uses buyouts to reduce workforce.
Craig Trotter, a former Deere manager in Waterloo, said he moved out of the state after accepting a voluntary separation offer from the company in 2019. He said the offer precludes him and other employees from applying to Deere again.
Brock Vandenwalker, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, whose father works at the Waterloo plant, said the fear of instability motivated him to take a job at a convenience store rather than apply to Deere. He also said many of the company's benefits don't kick in until after a seven-month probation period.
Travis McAtree, a truck driver based in Jesup, Iowa, said he, too, feared a Deere job could vanish if corn prices drop or an international dispute hurts farmer exports. Ryan Ginn of Cedar Rapids said he will keep his current job as a machinist at a slightly lower-paying employer because he feels it is more stable.
Ginn said multiple former Deere employees have complained to him that managers changed their shifts and assignments more often there than at other factories. He said a friend suggested he form a backup plan if he opted for a job at Deere.
"A lot of people have heard too many bad stories and just don't care to try," he said. "They just assume they will get used and laid off."
Donna Brustkern, of Washburn, Iowa, whose father retired from Deere in the 1990s, is not in that camp. She applied for a job during the March job fair in Waterloo, had interviews with two company representatives and felt good about the conversations.
But she said she never heard back from them. She currently works about 50 hours a week between jobs at a cabinet manufacturer and a McDonald's drive-thru. She said she could earn more and get better benefits working a 40-hour week with Deere.
She said she can't help wondering whether she was passed over because she is a woman. Or because she is 54 years old. Or because she was convicted of a drug offense in 2003.
"I have completely turned my life around," she said. "I live my life right and do right. I work hard every day I do my job, and I'm a good worker. Actually, I'm an excellent worker."
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: John Deere tractors are hot, but company struggles to hire in Iowa