May 27, 2021 - News

How addressing language barriers can help alleviate Iowa's worker shortage

Limited English proficient population, <br>Des Moines metro area
Note: The Des Moines metro area includes Polk, Dallas, Madison and Warren Counties; Data: Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

The number of people with limited English proficiency increased by more than 70% in Des Moines' four-county metro area since 2000, according to a new report from the DSM Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

Why it matters: As its population becomes more diverse, the city faces a growing need to assist English learners.

  • Worker shortages can be better alleviated by adequate language assistance, which refugee advocates say fosters job readiness, community engagement and economic self-sufficiency.
  • Plus: Most governments in the U.S. have an obligation to implement systems that can assist people with limited English proficiency.

By the numbers: 29,146 people who are age 5 and older in Polk, Dallas, Madison and Warren counties have limited English proficiency, according to 2019 census estimates.

  • That's up from 16,994 in 2000.

Driving the news: Des Moines had the second fastest-growing immigrant population in the last decade, according to a study by Heartland Forward that Axios reported on this week.

  • Business recruitment was credited as a reason for the spike.

The big picture: Iowa's aging population is stagnant and its lack of workers was recently described by a leader of the Iowa Business Council as "bordering on a crisis."

  • More than 90% of restaurants don't have enough employees, Iowa Restaurant Association CEO Jessica Dunker told Iowa PBS' Iowa Press this month.

What to watch: There's a growing need to better link academic and business groups to increase job readiness, Pablo Ortega, director of DMPS' English Language Learner program, told Axios.

  • Des Moines' public school district has nearly 7K students in its English Language Learner program, up from less than 1K three decades ago.
  • "Yes, there are language barriers but that's not insurmountable," Ortega said.
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