Laid-off workers retrained, re-enter local workforce

In a practical grassroots effort, Kirkwood Community College and IowaWORKS created a rapid response solution for dislocated and under-skilled workers.

The program developed out of a need to help workers laid off when Monticello’s Georgia Pacific plant closed early in 2012. Kirkwood staff knew there were jobs available at other local companies, however, some of the dislocated workers lacked skills to be rehired.

“Contrary to some of the popular information that’s out there, there are good jobs available locally,” Lisa Folken, assistant director of Kirkwood’s Jones County Regional Center. “But, employers are looking for training in specific skills. That is where some in their mid- to late careers fall short.”

Some of those specific skills range from using spreadsheet or document creation software and strong keyboarding, to welding and computer numerical control (CNC). Employers increasingly focus on job seekers’ soft skills, such as interpersonal communication and flexibility, as they make choices about whom to employ.

Kirkwood and IowaWORKS staff worked quickly to pull together as many educational resources as possible. Kirkwood provided faculty, classrooms and valuable hands-on lab space while IowaWORKS located Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funding that helped pay for tuition, books, transportation and child care.

As regular college classes ended for the summer at Kirkwood’s Jones County Regional Center, new classes for the displaced workers began. “We were able to quickly pull together highly qualified faculty and utilize the state-of-the-art equipment at our Jones County Regional Center,” said Folken. “The goal was to provide fast retraining while those who were laid off were still able to use unemployment insurance.”

Fifteen students, some laid off from Georgia Pacific and others who needed additional work skills, attended class daily from May 14 through Aug. 20, in CNC Fast Track, Welding or Basic Computation Skills. In August, Kirkwood hosted a job fair for local employers to gather applications, meet with the students and hand select students they wished to interview further.

Justin Speed, of Anamosa, supervised a Cedar Rapids-based telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD) relay call center until they lost critical grant funding and went out of business. He was invited to participate in Kirkwood’s training program and fully embraced the opportunity. “It could open a door for me. I wasn’t 100 percent sure about the door, but I was willing to try,” he said.

“It was a great program. The fast-track training was in set-up production, but I didn’t come in blind,” Justin continued. “I knew how to use the tools, I just needed to apply them to what they do at different companies.”

Justin attended the fall job fair and was hired by Bennett Machine & Fabricating, Inc., in Anamosa. “As an employer, the job fair was wonderful,” said Laura Scharosh, Human Resources at Bennett. “They took a lot of work out of the process. They provided the applicants and I chose who to interview. It was perfect.”

Justin can look forward to a bright future with Bennett. “Justin knows what he wants, he is driven,” Scharoth said. “He told us immediately that he wants to grow within the company. We knew he would be a great fit here.”

Thus far, 83 percent of the welding track students and 75 percent of the CNC track students who finished the program are currently employed. A similar retraining program is now being considered for Linn County. “We learned a lot from the experience and can refine and make it better,” said Folken. “Now we know the barriers and can replicate it on a much larger scale.”

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