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Seeing the pandemic as a workforce 'opportunity'

The challenge is how to teach skills virtually

Oct 6, 2020 at 8:00 am
    Evan Barr works at the site of a home being built by McCreedy Ruth Construction in Iowa City on Monday, March 9, 2020. Tim Ruth says he has been working for a decade to bring to life the construction apprenticeship program in partnership with Kirkwood Community College. The program works to address the long-standing shortage of skilled construction workers, providing apprentices with on-the-job training in addition to their on-campus schooling. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    Before the coronavirus, Central Iowa Works’ training program was “riding high.” The program, which helps people recently out of prison find a quality job and stay out of prison, benefited from statewide unemployment staying below 3 percent and job training being readily accessible.

    “Employers were looking for workers everywhere,” recalled Amber Ramirez, program manager for the Central Iowa Returning Citizens Achieve program. “Employers are willing to talk to us and figure out how to hire people that maybe they wouldn’t have considered previously.”

    Now, the job climate has changed dramatically. The state unemployment rate spiked in April to levels higher than in the previous two recessions combined, resulting in more than $1 billion in unemployment benefits for Iowans.

    Yet, with hundreds of thousands of Iowans out of work, the skills gap is expected to expand, not contract.

    “You have a number of low-skill individuals in those positions laid off, and fewer openings,” said Michelle Rich, community impact officer at United Way of Central Iowa.

    The pandemic made skills training and job applications more difficult for those without access to electronic devices or internet connections.

    Rich said all Central Iowa Works training moved from in-person to virtual.

    “Previously, we were able to help people in-person and fill out applications,” Ramirez said. “Now, they’re all done online, so for individuals that have a computer at their home, that’s just fine.”

    But with Iowa’s internet access issues well-documented, not everyone is “just fine.”

    “With the libraries closed, with the Workforce Development office closed and with our offices closed to the public, it gets a little trickier to even just fill out the applications,” Ramirez said.

    CIRCA’s case managers often are on the phone with applicants, asking them questions and typing in their answers for them.

    Some programs, Rich said, seek to provide access to electronic devices to participants, but that’s “not totally feasible” because of cost.

    Many people see the pandemic as an opportunity for new job training policies that tackle the skills gap long-term.

    Indeed, Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Finance Authority, said in July, “What I see is a tremendous amount of opportunity going forward.”

    Which way forward?

    But Rich said it could go in two different directions.

    “The pandemic has an opportunity to either increase further that skills gap or narrow it,” Rich said, referring to continued layoffs this summer as a sign of that gap widening. “We could invest in skills training where people are upskilled or receive basic skills that are needed for closing this skills gap.”

    Iowa Workforce Development is offering free online job training via Coursera through the end of December. That, of course, requires an internet connection.

    “The people who need it the most are the ones who also need help getting access to either a device or the internet,” Ramirez said.

    Other barriers include a lack of public transportation, skills training programs that now are above capacity with more people unemployed, and fewer child care slots, Rich said.

    Iowa’s ‘population problem’

    Lack of access to resources isn’t the only challenge as Iowa seeks to close the skills gap.

    The state’s aging population compounds the problem, Durham said. With many baby boomers soon to retire, that means fewer skilled workers.

    “We have a population problem,” Durham said. “We still have to be in the business of recruiting strategically for those sorts of skill sets we need.”

    Some companies have tried reaching out to eventual workers years before they’re ready to begin their job hunt.

    Businesses have pitched more than 100 real-world projects to K-12 students through the Iowa Clearinghouse for Work-Based Learning, a Future Ready Iowa initiative rolled out in August 2019.

    It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to the skills gap, Rich said, but it’s an “ideal” starting point.

    “It’s always ideal to get people when they’re young to the skills and a good job when they’re ready,” Rich said. “A lot of kids still aren’t going to be able to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives when they’re 16, so we’re always going to have a need beyond high school.”

    Apprenticeships, in general, Rich said, “really take down that barrier to accessing training.”

    Through the Clearinghouse, teachers can choose from project ideas — which have run the gamut from developing business solutions to organizing a networking event — and conduct them with students, in consultation with the companies involved.

    More than 120 Iowa businesses had listed approximately 140 projects on the virtual board in early March, said Jake Welchans, the initiative’s project manager.

    Participating companies, Welchans said, “know reaching out and connecting with students while they’re still in the K-12 area is paramount to their success moving forward.”

    One benefit to the Clearinghouse is its ability to connect companies with prospective future talent anywhere in Iowa.

    “If a kid is looking for an opportunity in their passion area, they’re not confined by a geographic region. That’s been a big plus,” said Welchans, citing students in rural districts without large businesses.

    “If you’re in an agriculture-based community, and you want to reach out and work with someone in aerospace, it’s pretty difficult when you don’t have access to those types of employers.”

    Lots of apprenticeships

    More than 1,300 registered apprenticeship programs have been created nationwide to date, managed by the U.S. Department of Labor, said Jill Lippincott, project manager with the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

    Among the more uncommon offerings are beekeeping, candymaking and winemaking, Lippincott said.

    “We’re seeing if this model that has worked in the trades so well for so many years can be lifted and really applied toward any occupation,” she said.

    The number of apprenticeship programs available is a testament to their flexibility — a plus Lippincott said officials highlight with employers.

    ”What we hear often is that there’s just a lot of unknowns for employers concerning registered apprenticeship programs and myths still out there, that it’s going to take a lot of paperwork or be driven by someone else’s standards,” she said.

    Iowa supports registered apprenticeships with $3 million in annual funding. In 2018, the state made $1 million available through its Registered Apprenticeship Development Fund, which grants business applicants up to $25,000 to support training for “high-demand” occupations — up to $50,000 total.

    Iowa City resident Evan Barr, 29, in early 2020 began a three-year program to receive a certificate as a construction technologist.

    In early March, Barr was working with McCreedy Ruth Construction, of Riverside, Mondays through Thursdays to build its third of five homes for Reach for Your Potential, a local not-for-profit that provides housing and other services for adults with disabilities. On Fridays, Barr attended construction-related classes at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

    Barr said he had worked a number of jobs in Minneapolis — in restaurants, for not-for-profits, a bike share and a moving company — before returning to Iowa City in late 2019.

    Though Barr only was one-and-a-half months into his certificate program in early March, he said it had proved to be a good choice.

    “It had always been an interest for me, working on houses,” he said. “I like to work with my hands. Basically every job that I’ve had, it’s been not in an office but out doing things, being out and about.”

    Tim Ruth, co-owner of McCreedy Ruth Construction and a former apprentice himself, said for more than a decade he has been “avid” about boosting construction apprenticeship programs in partnership with Kirkwood. These programs, he said, can bring a student into the workforce so they simultaneously can earn a living and learn a trade.

    Ruth recalled a nationwide shortage of skilled trades workers after the 2008 economic downturn and “hundreds of thousands” layoffs.

    “No one was quick enough to say we need to get them training and back to work,” he said.

    At the time, “it was easier to tell students, “to go to college and get a $30,000 degree in liberal arts.”

    Barr observed that certificate programs have not been an “extremely popular” option among his friends or acquaintances.

    “With one of my friends, she kind of wishes she had gone into a trade, work-as-you-learn type of deal because she’s in debt right now, and in your late 20s, early 30s, being in debt kind of sucks,” he said.

    Ruth said his company currently employs more than 20 workers, including some first hired while in school. He encourages all young people to consider pursuing a certificate

    “All you’ve got to have is a work ethic,” he said. “If you want to work, the sky’s the limit on how much you can earn.”

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