In December 2018 and January 2019, Iowa made news by having the lowest or being tied for the lowest unemployment rate in the entire country. We continued this streak in February.
Just more than 40,000 Iowans are unemployed out of a workforce of 1.695 million people.
Some counties, such as Johnson, Story, Carroll, Greene, Dallas, Taylor and Lucas, had rates below the state average of 2.4 percent.
More Iowans than ever before are working. Wages are increasing.
According to the Iowa Business Council’s fourth-quarter Economic Outlook Survey for 2018, Iowa’s largest employers anticipate increased sales, and more than half expect to add to their existing workforce in 2019.
In their 2019 Competitive Dashboard, IBC members indicate that the need for a trained workforce is a primary concern in addition to growing the state’s population.
Iowa’s population has not grown significantly in decades. Iowa therefore must do everything it can to upskill and train our existing workforce.
We must move people out of low-skill jobs into higher-paying, higher-growth jobs requiring some type of postsecondary training or education.
We must educate our students and their parents about all of the available high-demand opportunities in Iowa to ensure we keep as many of our graduates as we possibly can.
To help grow our skilled workforce and close the gap between low-skill jobs and those requiring up to an associate degree, the Future Ready Iowa Alliance was created in 2016. Over the course of a full year, led by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Dan Houston, chief executive officer of Principal Financial, the Alliance was made up of employers, educators across our entire education spectrum, not-for-profits and state and community leaders. It recommended a strategic plan for Iowa to ensure we created the skilled workforce we need to sustain and expand our growing economy.
The goal of the Future Ready Iowa Act is that 70 percent of Iowans in the workforce between the ages of 25 and 64, will have education or training beyond high school by 2025. Currently 57.4 percent of Iowans in this group have postsecondary training or education.
Last session, the Iowa Legislature unanimously passed the Future Ready Iowa Act, which created the infrastructure to implement several of the Alliance recommendations, including the Future Ready Iowa Last Dollar Scholarship.
The Last Dollar Scholarship is designed to focus our resources where they are most needed by employers — in high-paying, high-growth opportunities.
It is designed to attract more Iowans who want to pursue postsecondary credentials up to a two-year degree in a high-demand field such as nursing, advanced manufacturing or computer science.
The scholarship will close the gap between the cost of tuition and fees and available non-repayable financial aid. Last fall, the State Workforce Development Board designated the eligible industries for scholarship recipients.
As the Alliance recognized, we need to incentivize and attract more Iowans, of all ages, to training programs that lead to great careers and that are in demand by Iowa employers.
As Gov. Reynolds said in her Condition of the State speech in January, “At its core, Future Ready Iowa recognizes that there is dignity in meaningful work, that Iowans yearn for the opportunity to better themselves, and that those opportunities exist right here in Iowa.”
The Last Dollar Scholarship also will help tell students, parents and adults seeking to improve their earning capacity about great opportunities in rewarding careers and the means to complete those programs.
Because of who Iowa is as a state, we are leading the way nationally in how to create a skilled workforce. I often get questions from my peers around the country about how Iowa is doing so much, and they want to know more about Future Ready Iowa.
It is a nationwide model that Gov. Reynolds shared with the President’s Workforce Policy Advisory group in Washington, D.C.
And a key to the success of the program is the Last Dollar Scholarship. We want to incentivize all Iowans, regardless of gender, race, age or education level, to move into these careers that literally will change their lives.
“The time is now to invest in Iowans and their future,” as Gov. Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address.
The Last Dollar Scholarship will help Iowans find dynamic careers, increase their earning capacity and get on a path of lifelong learning.
That’s Future Ready Iowa. And the time is now.
• Beth Townsend is director of Iowa Workforce Development. This column appeared in The Gazette’s May 5, 2019, Iowa Ideas magazine.