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Access to skilled workforce, global markets priorities for Iowa manufacturers, farmers

Article cover photo
Mike Ralston, President of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), says access to skilled workforce and global markets are priorities for Iowa manufacturers. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Aaron Putze, APR

The state of manufacturing and business is strong in Iowa. But just like farming, threats are always present. They include global economic gyrations and political unrest to regulatory uncertainty and tight labor market. How do these issues intersect with Iowa agriculture? How do the priorities of Iowa manufacturers align with those of the soybean industry? What opportunities exist to increase manufacturing jobs and off-farm employment?

These are just a few of the topics I discussed with Mike Ralston, President of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), during a recent conversation at the organization’s headquarters in downtown Des Moines.

Tell us about ABI? ABI serves as the state’s unified voice for business. Established in 1903, we nurture a favorable business, economic, governmental and social climate within the state of Iowa. The Association’s membership includes more than 1,500 companies representing 330,000 working Iowans.

Who is Mike Ralston? I’m a small-town Iowa guy who’s always lived in Iowa. I love our state and know first-hand that we have great people who call Iowa home. At ABI, we want to help the state grow and prosper. There’s nothing better than to provide for one’s community and family and that’s what ABI does for its members. Call me a true believer but ABI’s purpose is about as good as it gets.

Why does Iowa manufacturing matter to the people of Iowa?

Iowa is an agricultural state. Iowa is also a manufacturing state. Nearly 20 percent of our gross domestic product is related to manufacturing. Statistically, Iowa’s best jobs with best-paying benefits are manufacturing and manufacturing related. The industry is a big deal for Iowa.

How do manufacturing and Iowa agriculture sync?

Manufacturers create products that farmers need. Farmers assist in making those products; they also use them to make their farms more productive. Second, manufacturing – just like farming – has evolved through innovation and sophistication. Iowa manufacturers are much more sophisticated and innovative than generations past, both in terms of the product and the process. And third, manufacturers and farmers care deeply about their communities and are working to make them stronger.

Describe the status of Iowa’s manufacturing sector. It’s strong. We have dozens, if not hundreds, of small-to-medium sized as well as large global manufacturers. They employ highly-skilled workers who make precision products at a relatively low cost compared to other locations. They’re also in a good place financially as they don’t have high inventories or debt. But they need markets.

Speaking of markets, what’s your take on the status of U.S. trade?

We’re proactive in communicating our preference for open and fair trade. Ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) is important. Iowa manufacturers do $6.3 billion in business with Mexico and Canada. We’ve worked hard to make sure our congressional delegation knows the importance of America’s relationships with other countries.

What’s ABI’s position on the U.S. trade war with China?

We understand the need for action and reforms. China must not be allowed to continue manipulating currency and stealing intellectual property. Perhaps tariffs were worth a try as a negotiation tool, but as a matter of economic policy, they’re not sustainable. Like soybean farmers, we’re eager to see a deal get done.

Name two issues that matter most to your members? At the top of the list is access to a skilled workforce. For at least a couple of generations, parents steered their children away from blue collar careers. We’re working diligently to change that by raising the profile of manufacturing jobs. You can have a rewarding career in manufacturing with a two-year degree or less. Second to labor is the need for open markets and the ability to sell our products in other parts of the world. Tariffs and trade disputes are making this work increasingly difficult.

What three things would you accomplish with one wave of a magic wand? Get more people interested in the manufacturing industry, pass USMCA and end the U.S.-China trade war.

Regulatory issues matter to ABI members. Why? Market development and access are increasingly controlled by government, not the private sector. This is a big departure from the economic model that allowed Iowa business and industry to flourish. The current market and regulatory situation is out of control. We need reform so we can access free and fair markets.

What will Iowa’s manufacturing sector look like in ten years? We just completed our quarterly survey of manufacturers. Five respondents talked about decreasing sales, five indicated plant expansions while everyone else predicted stable and steady growth. In ten years, manufacturers will be more innovative and automated but that doesn’t mean they’ll need less people. Pay and benefits will continue to increase.

What’s your message to Iowa soybean farmers?

Two words: thank you! Production agriculture is important to the manufacturing sector. Farmers and manufacturers work together and have many of the same needs, including skilled and dedicated employees and continuous innovation. Many manufacturers began as farmers wanting to make something better. Examples include John Deere, Gene Sukup and Jon Kinzenbaw. And look what they created. Farming and manufacturers have a long history of working together. We don’t take these partnerships for granted and look forward to building a successful future together.

Putze can be reached at

For media inquiries, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at or Aaron Putze, ISA Communications Director at

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at Iowa Soybean Association | 1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy | Ankeny | IA | 50023 | US

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