Iowa’s unemployment rate fell below six percent in December — the first time it has been that low since June of 2009. But the lower rate doesn’t tell the whole story about the job market in the state. As demand trickles back, employers in the state have learned to make do with less workers.

Brandy Donahue of Amana has been a waitress on and off for the last 14 years, and says she was surprised by how tight the job market is. “Normally it’s a lot easier to find a job, one application and you go and talk to somebody and normally you get hired right away,” she explains.

“But now it’s a little bit harder. A lot more overqualified people are applying for the lower jobs, which makes it harder for those who aren’t overqualified.” With kids to care for and no extra money for gas, Brandy says she can only job search one day a week.

So far, they’re getting by on her husband’s paycheck, but they do miss her income. “Um, it’s stressful. But it hasn’t been too long, hopefully I can get my unemployment and something comes in. I don’t care what, just something. So, not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.”

Iowa State University economist, Dave Swenson, says part of the problem is lots of Iowans are holding down two, even three jobs, just to get by. Swenson says, “We’re adding jobs to the economy, but we have fewer workers. That bothers me. What that means is if we are adding jobs to the economy it could very well be we’re adding part-time jobs, not full-time jobs.”

For those Iowans who’re older and looking for a job, it can be even tougher.  Sixty-three-year-old Gregg Stark of Cedar Rapids has a long career in manufacturing and management before being laid off about one year ago. Stark says a lot of the new jobs are high-tech and training intensive, and they favor younger workers..

“There are a lot of people coming out of college right now that have a knowledge and familiarity with computers that just blows away anybody over a certain point. You go for those skills as you can, but there’s a difference. So as an employer, you have a value judgment: the skills versus the experience,” Stark says.

Economist Swenson says people like Stark are the hidden reality in Iowa’s lower unemployment rate. “We know that we have a level of long-term unemployment that we have not seen for 70 years,” Swenson says.

“At some point, many of those people just simply drop out of the labor force. So the issue of the discouraged worker is something that everybody needs to pay attention to, because it’s an indirect sign of how healthy your economy is and how healthy your labor force is.”

So while the state’s jobs reports are looking better, the unemployment number is only part of the overall picture.