Galesburg labor force shrinks faster than population

Jane Carlson
Galesburg Register-Mail
Signs advertising “wages starting at $15 per hour” with Supply Chain Services & Solutions are seen at the former Maytag building, 1801 Monmouth Blvd. and 1000 S. Linwood Road, on Friday.

GALESBURG — With an aging population, an ongoing pandemic and help wanted signs on every corner, finding enough workers to fill positions is a continuing problem for local businesses, schools and hospitals. 

But the number of available workers in the area has been steadily declining for decades. 

“In my opinion, the labor force is the number one economic issue for Galesburg and the surrounding area,” said Ken Springer, president of the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development. “A successful economy requires workers.”

The labor force — those age 16 or older who are employed or actively seeking employment — has declined at a much steeper rate than the population in the Galesburg Micropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Knox and Warren counties.

Since 2000, the area population has decreased 10% while the labor force has shrunk by more than 25% — in large part due to an aging population. 

Baby boomers leaving workforce

A study by the U.S. Census Bureau shows labor participation nationwide actually increased in every other age bracket between 2010 and 2019, but the labor force is still shrinking due to baby boomers leaving the workforce. 

“You are going to have retirements and you need younger workers to come in and replace that,” Springer said. 

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused distortions in the labor market that are still in flux, exacerbating existing problems.

“When there is a crisis, it accelerates all the trends that are there before the crisis,” Springer said. 

The area labor force has declined more than 25% in the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data before 1990 is considered unofficial due to changes in methodology in reporting labor statistics since then.

With well-documented shortages locally in industries from welding and hospitality to nursing and teaching, Springer said the need for employees is broad-based. 

“You drive around the community and you see help wanted signs at just about every business,” Springer said. 

It also affects a community’s efforts to bring new employers here. 

“Looking from the outside, if there’s not a labor force, there’s no way they will choose to locate there,” Springer said. “You won’t drive into the desert if there’s no gas station.”

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Witnessing a history of decline

A declining population and shrinking labor force go back decades, well before the coronavirus pandemic and well before the national economic recession of 2008 in the wake of devastating local factory closures. 

The first steep declines were between 1980 and 1990, following national trends and a first wave of factory closures here. 

Since 1980, the combined population in Knox and Warren counties has decreased 20% while unofficial Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the labor force may have shrunk 49% since then, from 40,000 workers to 20,000. 

That data is considered unofficial because the Bureau of Labor Statistics has used a different methodology for tracking labor force participation since 1990. 

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Different skillsets now needed

Industries themselves have changed significantly over time, with different skillsets needed to fill positions. 

Springer said the Galesburg Area Vocational Center and Carl Sandburg College area are critical institutions for the future economic success of the region. 

“They are factories for talent,” Springer said. “They are the entities that produce the skillsets. These are the institutions that feed our industries.”

Carl Sandburg College President Seamus Reilly said there are opportunities in the area for long-term employment and careers with growth that are accessible with “very straightforward” one-year certificates and two-year degrees. 

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Some industries, such as allied health, allow students to be working on higher degrees of education while already working in the field, he said. 

Enhancing public awareness is key to addressing the labor shortage, both Springer and Reilly said. 

“We do a great job in different job fairs,” Reilly said. “But we need to build a more dynamic network to connect our potential employees with our employers.”

Carl Sandburg College played a critical role in preparing workers for new careers following the closures of Galesburg’s Maytag factory in in 2004 and Butler Manufacturing in 2005. 

Some of the workers laid off in those closures retired, moved out of the area or began commuting to jobs in Peoria or the Quad Cities. 

Others were retrained to work in healthcare, other manufacturing realms and other industries here. 

“What this college did with the drastic change then,” Reilly said. “We are still doing that same work now.”

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'We have to be bold'

Reilly said Carl Sandburg College is working with workforce investment groups to align opportunities and keep a closer eye on employer’s needs. 

“We are beginning to have those conversations so we can plan together to see the needs and allow our community to grow,” Reilly said. 

Springer said he is thrilled to see those conversations happening, as is Galesburg mayor Peter Schwartzman, who has other ideas on how to address a shrinking labor force. 

“Acknowledging the challenge is a major step in the solution,” Schwartzman said. “We have to be bold, we have to work with real data and we have to set up steps along the way so we can be self-critical.” 

One way to address it is by utilizing grant dollars to get more local residents prepared to work in skilled trades, Schwartzman said, 

Likewise, local employer Pegasus Manufacturing, is collaborating with local school districts, Sandburg and Monmouth College to increase the pool of skilled laborers in the area.

“That’s a strong model that can be replicated by others,” Schwartzman said. 

Schwartzman sees the potential to attract residents to Galesburg in growth industries such as renewable energy, noting a recent state bill that will bring training hubs as close as Peoria. 

As family farms have given way to larger operations and fewer people are working in agriculture, Schwartzman also sees potential in urban farms on the city’s south side as ways of repurposing properties, growing local food and reversing that trend. 

Investing in youth best investment

Most importantly he sees potential in the area’s youth — giving them both skills to succeed and reasons to live and work in here as adults. 

“Many of our youth will go outside our community for higher education,” Schwartzman said. “How do we entice them to come back to this wonderful city?”

Intensive summer programs, meaningful engagement opportunities in local government and enhanced entrepreneurship programs for youth could help keep young people here, he said. 

“We have to think long-term. I don’t think there is any simple fix to this,” Schwartzman said. “It does take investment. In my opinion, investing in youth is the best investment we could make.”