Better funding needed to close Iowa skills gap, Hogg says at Kirkwood

Senate minority leader tours industrial technology labs in Cedar Rapids

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Although lawmakers softened the impact of midyear budget cuts with a slight increase for the coming fiscal year, community colleges need “continuous support” to help meet Iowa’s education and workforce needs, a key Democratic legislator said Wednesday.

The $1.6 million increase for general funding of the state’s 15 community colleges that begins July 1 after $4.7 million in cuts during the current budget year takes Iowa in the “wrong direction if you want to grow the economy,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said after touring industrial technology labs at Kirkwood Community College.

“Iowa’s shortage of skilled workers is holding our state economy back,” Hogg said. Inadequate funding is hampering Iowa’s attempts to close the skills gap between the labor force and employers’ needs. “We need to do a better job connecting Iowans to careers.”

Kirkwood’s 17 industrial tech programs enroll about 800 students each year, according to Andrea Ewers, industrial tech program coordinator. The students are a mix of recent high school graduates, college graduates, non-traditional students and employees of local industries upgrading their skills.

Enrollment is limited in many programs and Industrial Technology Dean Dan Martin said he would like to be able to hire more faculty to teach more classes. Welding is the largest industrial tech program with 85 students. Kirkwood offers classes in the morning, afternoon and evening to meet demand.

Most programs run nine months to two years. Some are pre-apprenticeship programs. In nearly all cases, Ewers said, those who complete their Kirkwood program have job opportunities waiting for them.

As a result of the budget cuts and limited state funding — over the past decade, community college funding has increased by just 1.7 percent — Kirkwood is considering raising tuition from $154 per credit hour to $162 and $5 a year after that, Ewers said.

Hogg blames majority Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate for inadequate funding.

“Republican legislators made that problem worse this spring when they repeatedly cut community college funding,” he said. “Democrats understand that helping Iowans improve their skills is one of the ways we build a stronger, higher wage economy.”

Citing falling state revenues, Republicans approved a fiscal 2018 budget that increased spending by $9 million to $7.269 billion.

Legislative Republicans “softened” the community colleges cuts proposed by Gov. Terry Branstad, said Colin Tadlock, spokesman for House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.

“Additionally, while most areas of government are going to see budget reductions in the next fiscal year, we made community colleges a priority and gave them an increase of $1.6 million,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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