116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There are winners and losers in the business world, as Ronald Cox sees it. As other states see a population boom and Iowa’s population growth lags, businesses here must compete to draw new people into the workforce.
Cox, director of Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service, said Iowa historically has had a higher labor participation rate than the U.S. average. That means those who want to and are able to work are already employed.
Yet Iowa still faces a labor shortage, leaving companies to grapple with how to fill open positions.
So what does it take to come out on top and “win the workforce”?
“It doesn’t matter what kind of person you’re trying to recruit to your company,” Cox said. “You have to solve their problems.”
Because Iowa has a high labor participation rate, Cox said businesses must find innovative ways to employ harder-to-reach populations who are not already easy to pull into the workforce.
Offering higher wages and a great culture and meeting people’s needs — in other words, breaking down their barriers to the workforce — are all part of the solution, Cox said. Companies might provide necessary on-the-job training, be flexible in meeting child care needs or accommodate different religious practices.
“The good companies are figuring it out and rapidly moving to take a different approach,” Cox said.
In Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, an organization called Urban Dreams tries for more than just a win for employees. The program aims to help fill a shortage of low- to middle-skill job openings with qualified individuals employers may struggle to recruit using traditional outreach methods such as job fairs or a chamber of commerce.
The Des Moines-based program focuses on serving underrepresented and at-risk populations. Its outreach coordinators will stroll along city streets, venture to parks, stop a cashier at a clothing store or inside a gas station and ask the question, Are you happy in your job?
Companies may be able to easily recruit a chief financial officer or other high-skill positions, Jasmine Almoayyed said this past spring. Almoayyed was Cedar Rapids economic development manager for eight years and who left that post in July to become vice president of Kirkwood Community College’s Continuing Education and Training Services.
But employers also need to be able to fill their openings in warehouses or distribution trucks, she said.
“The reality of it is, if you don't have enough people to fill jobs, there does become a point where production needs are unmet, and so that's consistently been a concern for me,” Almoayyed said. “When you can't fill those jobs, if that company goes, then so goes all those executive positions as well, so we need to be focused on that.”
Creating job pipelines
At the same time the city of Cedar Rapids was recruiting for a newly created workforce position intended to help address those needs, conversations were ongoing between city leaders and Urban Dreams Executive Director Izaah Knox.
He and city officials envisioned a partnership that would connect people who typically face barriers to success with job-training programs and opportunities in the local workforce.
By July 2020, the Cedar Rapids City Council authorized a $100,000 agreement to partner with Urban Dreams to help create a sustainable pipeline for workers to area employers.
Outreach efforts target Cedar Rapids youth and adults from low-socioeconomic areas and at-risk populations, including high school dropouts, people with a criminal record and those who are underemployed or unemployed.
That’s where outreach comes in.
It seems obvious — just talking to people wherever they are at — but that is not a tactic those entities typically employ, Almoayyed said.
“We're trying to get today's workforce. There's all kinds of great stuff going on with kids and creating pipelines. There's great work going on about trying to recruit back educated professionals,” Almoayyed said.
Urban Dreams’s staff helps give prospective employees the tools they need to get the jobs they seek and to learn the soft skills required to succeed in the workforce. That may include how to seek feedback, dress appropriately for a business environment and manage time effectively.
Once employees have started work, they may have opportunities to job-shadow multiple departments within the organization, hear from guest speakers and to receive on-the-job training.
Cedar Rapids Economic Development Specialist Ana Stomp said hired individuals may share the benefits of Urban Dreams’ work with others — helping to reach more people through word-of-mouth. Staff meet with and get to know the individuals and are able to advocate for them to employers, with whom Urban Dreams has also built relationships to create these sustainable job pipelines.
“There are people that just … don't have that direct connection, and so Urban Dreams builds that genuine relationship, really knows the people and what their skills are and can advocate for them,” Stomp said.
Retention also is key once an employee is hired. Urban Dreams staff work with
employers to provide technical assistance in cultural competency and program evaluations.
The team helps employers learn to reexamine their hiring practices to see whether they are unintentionally exclusionary, Stomp said. This could include staff sitting in on a mock interview and reviewing the questions recruiters ask or reviewing the assessments they use in hiring.
“If we're putting up these barriers that aren't necessary to exist,” such as a complete ban on hiring people who have been convicted of felonies, Stomp said, “there may be candidates that they're missing out on that would be great within their organization, could be advocates because a company was willing to give them a second chance.”
In some cases, this means meeting partnering employers where they are as well and challenging their assumptions to redefine a culture fit within their organization, Knox said.
But inclusion is not a one-way street, Knox said. Communities have discussions, too, based on their notions of which employers are not viewed as inclusive.
“Those conversations that happen inside organizations are also happening in the community, like, 'I'm not going to work there, my uncle worked there once and guess what they did to him. That's not a good place for people like us to go work,’” Knox said. “We have to break down those stereotypes so we have those same conversations within the community as well.”
That gets to the core of Urban Dreams’ mission — serving as a conduit to bridge the perceived gaps between the community and employers and build lasting relationships.
“If an individual truly believes they're a part of a company, or they think that the company has done something that is completely transformative and changed their life,” Stomp said, “they're definitely going to be advocates within themselves and then they're also going to be advocates within their community.”
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