During the first morning of the 2018 Iowa Ideas conference, a panel of health care experts observed that a worker shortage in the state’s direct care industry is reaching a crisis level.
But, the panelists noted, even as more Iowans are aging and requiring long-term care services, the issue doesn’t seem to get much traction at the legislative level.
“We have to do a better job marshaling the voices of people who are concerned about this issue,” said panelist John Hale during that discussion. “We need to generate more of a critical mass so the issue gets the attention it deserves.”
Hale, who is co-founder and president of the Hale Group, an Ankeny-based consulting, advocacy and communications firm focused on aging, disability and caregiving, later reflected on how Iowa Ideas provides a voice to critical issues such as the direct care worker shortage.
“The Iowa Ideas conference allows issues that otherwise don’t get talked about to be discussed in a significant public policy forum,” Hale said. “The conference brings people together to listen and learn — including people who are in a position to do something about it.”
From children’s mental health to affordable housing to the future of energy efficiency programs, the second annual Iowa Ideas conference offered a platform for discussing scores of issues impacting the state and its residents.
The conference took place September 20-21 in Cedar Rapids at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Convention Complex. Designed to be a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience to explore opportunities and challenges facing Iowa, the event led off with opening remarks from Gloria Cotton, senior partner for inQuest Consulting, who also delivered the Diversity Forum keynote.
Thereafter, over the next day and a half, approximately 550 participants selected from among dozens of panel discussions in eight topic tracks — agriculture, education, energy and environment, workforce, health care, human and social services, policy and regional development.
Tracks also were available for Diversity Forum, in partnership with the Employee Resource Group Consortium, and NextGen Summit, in partnership with ImpactCR and EPIC.
All in all, some 180 speakers — industry leaders, lawmakers, educators, policy experts and more — gave voice to the key issues and big ideas in their respective areas of subject matter expertise.
One attendee, Mario Fenu, who serves as Iowa business development manager for Houston Engineering, Inc. (HEI), an engineering and environmental consulting firm, said he was most interested in topics related to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a water quality initiative, and the Iowa Watershed Approach, a program to address flooding, because of their relevance to HEI’s business strategies.
He found what he was looking for in the first panel discussion in the energy and environment track, entitled “Water Quality: Next Steps.”
“It really touched on and described Iowa’s ‘wicked problem,’” Fenu said. “That’s a term of art for a problem that doesn’t have a solution but is a series of issues that need to be managed.”
Fenu said he appreciated the ability to move between tracks at the conference, given how issues tend to intersect multiple topic areas.
“You can’t talk about water quality and soil health without talking about agriculture, too,” he noted.
The intertwining of various issues and topics was perhaps no more apparent than at the lunchtime keynote panel on the first day of the conference.
For that panel, which combined all tracks, Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham joined with Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise and Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend to discuss Future Ready Iowa, the state’s skilled workforce development initiative. As the three state leaders outlined strategies for recruiting students and adults into training programs for high-demand jobs, they touched upon many issues that had and would be voiced during other panel discussions throughout the conference.
For example, in an earlier education panel discussion about the affordability and accessibility of college in Iowa, Rob Miller, president of Iowa College Access Network, addressed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) filings, a necessary first step in applying for federal student aid such as federal grants, work-study, and loans.
“FAFSA completion in the state is at 60 percent now and is going down,” Miller had commented.
The topic came up again during the Future Ready Iowa panel.
A question to the panel wondered if the FAFSA statistic presented reason for the panelists’ concern. Are students perceiving that college is too expensive and too out of reach and not even bothering to file a FAFSA? How will that perception impact Future Ready Iowa’s goal to have 70 percent of the workforce receive education or training beyond high school by 2025?
“I’m not discouraged by the statistic,” Durham responded, stating that a four-year degree program isn’t necessary for everyone. She further suggested that the state could do a better job tracking students who drop out of four-year college programs and then recruiting those students into apprenticeships and specialized training programs.
Wise added that his department is “focused on preparation” — informing students of their various options upon graduation, including apprenticeships and two-year degree programs, and encouraging their participation in school-based work training programs so they are ready for post-high school opportunities.
The Future Ready Iowa panelists also were asked to comment on the direct care worker shortage. Does the state have a plan to meet that critical need?
Townsend noted that while health care is one of the high-demand careers targeted by the workforce initiative, nurse aides and in-home caregivers, which make up a large part of the direct care industry, don’t qualify for Future Ready Iowa funding because those positions don’t require specialized training.
“We will address [direct care], trucking and other noncredit programs in the second round of funding,” Townsend said. “We have to prioritize, so we’re starting with credit programs.”
While that may not have been the answer that Hale and other caregiver advocates wanted to hear, they can take some comfort in the fact the question was asked at all.
“People are more aware than in the past in part due to activities like Iowa Ideas,” Hale said after the conference had ended. “People are talking more about the issue and the challenges it presents and are talking about the need to get much more serious.”
For some attendees, the Iowa Ideas conference was an opportunity to hear other perspectives on issues that are important to them.
“I’m curious about what other people are saying about the things I’m engaged in,” said Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.
Cobb, who attended the inaugural Iowa Ideas conference in 2017, said she came back this year “to stay abreast of the discussion about education, workforce planning and our communities.” In particular, she was interested in hearing how others outside the field of education are advocating for support of public schools and public educators.
For other attendees, the informal conversations and networking that occurred during the conference were just as important as the panel presentations.
“You can never have too much time to talk and exchange ideas,” Fenu said after an impromptu discussion with industry colleagues between sessions.
“You take a stranger, find you have something in common, learn from each other, exchange business cards and develop relationships,” Hale said. “The value continues long after the event ends.”
Iowa Ideas is a Gazette initiative that includes an annual conference and ongoing coverage of the issues throughout the year.