Editor’s note: Iowans’ Ideas is a guest column featuring the views of different Iowans each edition of The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas magazine.
The key to economic development in Iowa is building a talent pipeline connecting education and the workforce.
We all have a role to play in this economic development strategy, which will help the state achieve its Future Ready Iowa goal of 70 percent of the workforce completing education or training beyond high school by 2025.
In my visits to more than 500 schools across Iowa, I have seen the role education plays in fueling the economy and building the skilled talent pipeline. There are three key themes.
1. Great teaching in both academic content and soft skills, with additional support for students who need it.
My favorite classroom moments happen when students wrestle with a cognitive challenge and have a breakthrough insight. This can happen in second-grade reading, calculus or welding.
Our best teachers push, encourage and engage our students. They set a high bar for students and help them clear it.
These teachers go beyond the academic content to help students develop the skills needed to be successful in the workplace and grow our economy. In the most engaging classrooms, students are working collaboratively, using technology, and unlocking their creativity to design novel solutions.
These are the skills our employers are seeking in their future workforce.
I’ve seen this approach in communities across Iowa, like Okoboji Middle School, where students in the Midmester Academy work on projects aligned with the district vision to prepare each learner with knowledge and skills necessary for life in a changing world; Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, where students in the Trades Academy have the opportunity to experience an advanced manufacturing setting on their school campus; and in rural Lamoni, where students develop computer science skills designed to prepare them for careers in the field.
Approaches like these ensure our students can apply what they learn in the classroom in real-world settings.
2. A continued commitment to building a high-quality educator workforce.
Iowa’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation system invests $163 million annually to provide our strongest teachers the opportunity to coach, mentor and support their colleagues so that they can strengthen instruction and improve student achievement. By supporting teacher leadership, we are ensuring our teachers continue to sharpen their skills and stay current on best practices.
We also can strengthen our teacher workforce through providing teachers the opportunity to directly engage with business and industry to see firsthand the knowledge and skills employers need. Iowa STEM Teacher Externships, a program of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, provides teachers with full-time summer positions in local businesses.
I had the opportunity to visit with teacher externs working on quality control projects at Renewable Energy Group and Barilla in Ames. These teacher externs gained insight into how to shape their instruction so that students develop the skills businesses look for in their most successful employees.
3. Access to meaningful work-based learning experiences.
Work-based learning can take many forms, from projects connecting a classroom to a business, to internships and registered apprenticeships that allow students to earn a paycheck while they learn on the job. The central theme in each of these approaches is giving students an authentic learning opportunity to connect academic content to the actual work of Iowa businesses.
I recently visited Living History Farms in Urbandale, where two students from Johnston High School were leading projects in accounting and event planning. These students clearly could articulate what they learned and how this learning impacted their future education and career plans.
Experiences like this should not be limited to students in Iowa’s cities and suburbs. With the development of the online Clearinghouse for Work-Based Learning, which was created through executive order by Gov. Kim Reynolds and supported by increased funding this legislative session, Iowa is taking a cutting-edge approach to ensuring equity in access to work-based learning. The Clearinghouse, which officially launched July 1, will include a virtual space where businesses can post projects for Iowa students to gain in-depth work experience.
Building this skilled talent pipeline through better connecting education and the workforce also must include a focus on equity. Historically underrepresented students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds need to see a place for them in our economy.
Girls and young women need to be encouraged and supported to explore previously male-dominated careers in math, science and manufacturing. And students in rural communities need to experience a connection to the full range of economic opportunity Iowa has to offer.
When all of our students — regardless of geography or background — experience the school and business connection, our economy will thrive.
• Ryan Wise is director of the Iowa Department of Education.