On the blacktop four-lane, a good mile or two from the edge of town, Dave Heaton spotted a “Now Hiring” sign. Those two words didn’t attract much attention anymore. You could find them on posters beside the meatpacking plant; on the fence at the Walmart distribution center; in front of the Pizza Ranch and the Pizza Hut and the Hardee’s; in the driveway next to the building supply warehouse; and in the yard at the plastic molding factory. But this particular sign snagged his attention, because he’d never seen one this far outside the city limits. It was as if the local businesses were now competing to see whose sign would be seen first by out-of-towners.
“That’s telling me things are getting desperate,” Heaton said. About 8,500 people live in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and for the past five years or so, the town has averaged 200 to 300 job openings on any given day. When Heaton, a 77-year-old Republican, was first elected to the state House of Representatives 25 years ago, the town’s big employers included a factory that built Blue Bird school buses, another that made Motorola electronics, and another that printed inserts for direct mail circulars. One by one those plants disappeared, mainly because of consolidation and outsourcing. Mount Pleasant became part of a statewide trend: The workforce in small towns and rural areas was shrinking as more middle-class families chased jobs to the cities.
Then something stra