Local businesses utilizing workforce recruitment program to employ people from Puerto Rico

MT. PLEASANT — Henry County and Mt. Pleasant may soon be seeing some new faces around town as local businesses have decided to team up with Avance USA, a workforce recruitment program that will help employ people from Puerto Rico and bring them into the community.

The Mt. Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance began working with the program’s founder and President Jennifer Andrade last November, who met with local employers. Currently, Lomont Molding LLC and Henry County Health Center have taken the first steps to begin recruiting through the program, according to the Chamber’s executive director Kristi Ray.

Ray explained that the nonprofit became aware of the program through state representative Joe Mitchell who became interested in looking for ways to help with workforce issues after hearing directly from constituents, particularly from employers who were struggling to fill open positions.

“The number one thing that stuck out to me when I went to Heatilator, when I went to Lomont or Walmart Distribution Center is that they need warm bodies that come to work, 9 to 5. They just need workers. And we can’t find workers, they aren’t coming for us because we’re in rural communities. It seemed like this impossible problem that nobody can fix,” Mitchell remarked during the Chamber’s legislative forum on Monday.

Mitchell also noted that on top of open positions, employers were also having difficulty finding skilled workers and were spending time and resources to educate workers through apprenticeships.

The state representative explained he was inspired to seek out programs in Puerto Rico after hearing about the efforts of an employer attempting to recruit workers from the Caribbean Island with little success on their own because they “didn’t have the connections.” But while the recruitment effort was not a success, the anecdote sparked an idea for Mitchell.

“I did think it was probably a good idea to go down there and try to search for workers because obviously they’re not in the best economic circumstances right now, but you’ve got a lot of people down there who are educated, who are smart, who are good workers, who would be able to come up here to Iowa and work in our businesses,” Mitchell said, also noting that workers from the U.S. territory are “not refugees from the border, they’re U.S. citizens and very educated.”

“We’re bringing up really educated people … and they’re going to fill those skill-need jobs that we need,” Mitchell continued, addressing concerns he heard from constituents.

The state representative noted that he has been working with Andrade for six-months to bring workers to Iowa. Ray noted that the founder and president works as the “on the ground” connection to the workers and helps vet potential candidates and finds suitable positions based on skill and education.

Ray explained that the program is really “exciting” for the community and will be a way to bring in new young families.

“We know that as a state, Iowa really struggles to keep up as far as population goes … it’s exciting to watch families in Puerto Rico who are ready to make a better life for themselves come to Mt. Pleasant. We wouldn’t be able to attract those people if we did not have someone like Jennifer in that community,” Ray said.

Lynn Humphreys, the human resources director at HCHC who has been working with Andrade, explained that the recruitment efforts are especially important to smaller rural communities. Humphreys noted that recruitment is an issue that human resources professionals from across businesses have been working together to address.

“Right now, we are taking from one business to another. We’re recruiting the same people but not growing the population,” Humphreys explained.

Through utilizing the recruitment program, the HR director noted that it will not only bring “growth to the community” but may also help fill additional open positions when workers bring family members and spouses to Iowa who may also be looking for employment.

While still in the early stages, the director noted that the program’s success in other parts of the state is encouraging and exciting for Mt. Pleasant and Henry County.

“The fact that there is no visa required, they’re citizens, and able to move in, and the fact that people are very interested in coming to the community is exciting,” Humphreys said.