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When a group of University of Iowa graduate students set out to work with the city of Cedar Rapids to address workforce retention, the group did not anticipate what would surface as one of the most critical issues - diversity.
As part of the University of Iowa's Initiative for Sustainable Communities, urban and regional planning graduate students are working with the city of Cedar Rapids to better understand what keeps people in the city.
The group's mission is to "enable the city of City Rapids to better retain its 25 to 40 year old workforce by gathering, interpreting, and synthesizing community-based research on worker preferences," according to its website, www.crwrp.com.
The group began in mid-October by collecting responses to community activity sheets which asked participants for responses to four open-ended questions. One statement asked participants to complete the following sentence: "I moved outside Cedar Rapids because...". Another asked participants to answer: "I would live in Cedar Rapids forever if...". The other two questions were "What I like about Cedar Rapids is," and "I am considering living outside Cedar Rapids because...".
As of early December, the group had received 232 responses to the community activity sheets.
Respondents said they want to see Cedar Rapids become a more "culturally diverse" town," according to survey results.
"One of the things that we are particularly interested in is about what attaches people to a community, what gets them to anchor down and stay in a community," said Misty Rebik, a graduate student in urban and regional planning at the university. "One of the issues we've heard anecdotally through Cedar Rapids is that a lot of workers, especially from minority backgrounds, have a lot of issues that when they get into Cedar Rapids, they can't really find their niche.
"They can't find a place that they feel comfortable with."
Findings like this prompted Rebik and her team to become interested in diversity and its relationship to workforce retention, she said.
"Not to mention, with the changing demographics of Iowa, I think diversity personally is very important to the economic future of our state and really of the country," she said.
Rebik and the group have discovered through research that open, welcoming communities are more likely to be able to successfully retain employees. If Cedar Rapids' residents feel welcome and at ease, they are more likely willing to stay, which in turn will help the city better retain workers between the ages of 25 and 40.
"Part of the main reason for this project is that there is a lot of anecdotal evidence out there," said Nick Benson, program coordinator of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities at the University of Iowa. "There are a lot of opinions and thoughts about why Cedar Rapids may have a problem, but not a lot of data."
In addition to providing the data and recommendations to the city, the students are engaging the public in the project and getting young professionals involved, Benson said.
"They're actually looking at other comparable communities that have had some success (and discovering) what are they doing differently," he said.
Jasmine Almoayed, Cedar Rapids' economic development liaison, said the project will help the city identify where it should focus its resources. For example, are there a lack of amenities? Is there an in demand housing shortage?
Almoayed is a founding member of the Employee Resource Group Consortium, made up of Corridor employers who are advocates for diversity within their companies. Prior to working for the city she worked at Kirkwood Community College for five years.
"We know we have a diminishing workforce, so the number of the working population is declining no matter what, so it just becomes more and more imperative that the people that do move here are happy and choose to stay here," she said.
In addition to the community action survey, students also conducted a community survey. More than 350 participants have taken this survey.
Students also led a focus group on Nov. 21 at the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance which had ten participants.
A second focus group is being planned for sometime in February. Rebik said she also plans to better identify what people mean when they talk about diversity.
"When I say diversity, I might mean I want to see more people who look like me, or more people who speak this language," she said. "Some people when they say diversity might mean they want more ethnic restaurants. So what does diversity mean when people say they want more diversity?"
Before then, students will continue to collect survey responses at public locations including grocery stories, malls and the library as well as in neighborhoods.
The group also plans to create a Spanish-language version of its community survey and website for Spanish speakers, said Jeremy Endsley, also a graduate student in urban planning.
After completing a data analysis and writing a report, students will give the city suggestions for action.
"As we go further collecting more data (and) also doing comparisons with other cities, we'll try to figure out if they've overcome some of these issues, how they're addressing them and see if that's relevant to what we're finding," Rebik said.