Business

Growing Iowa's workforce means overcoming 'grab bag of nebulous fears' to hire from marginalized groups

Gazette business panel discusses workforce development strategies

Laurie Worden, director for Workplace Learning Connection at Kirkwood Community College, answers a question during The Gazette Business Breakfast series panel Challenges and Opportunities for Iowa's Workforce at the Geonetric Building in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Laurie Worden, director for Workplace Learning Connection at Kirkwood Community College, answers a question during The Gazette Business Breakfast series panel Challenges and Opportunities for Iowa's Workforce at the Geonetric Building in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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A “grab bag of nebulous fears” might keep some Iowa employers from tapping marginalized groups for new hires, a panel of workforce experts agreed.

But bringing onboard members of those groups, including immigrants and people with criminal records, is key to expanding the state’s workforce, and reducing its unemployment rate beyond the current 2.4 percent, the experts said.

Five panelists discussed workforce challenges and opportunities at the first of this year’s Gazette Business Breakfast events. Around 70 attendees, including city officials and community leaders, participated in the discussion at the Geonetric building the New Bohemia District.

One of the attendees, RaeAnn Gordon, a former social services worker now with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, said former inmates often are “some of the hardest workers” but might face barriers, such as a lack of transportation or childhood trauma. Mentorship and full honesty, rather than reprimands, from employers is key to circumventing those barriers, she said.

In terms of hiring immigrants, panelist Jennifer Yi Boyer, chief talent officer with testing company ACT, based in Iowa City, noted recent federal policy has resulted in higher legal costs for companies such as hers. Last year, she said, ACT spent more than a quarter-million dollars on work-visa renewals — including for current employees it was sponsoring even though some of them ended up not being approved.

“The reality is, the cost of that can sometimes cripple the business return on that investment,” she said.

When it comes to worker retention, another panelist, Ron Cox, director for Iowa State University’s Center of Industrial Research and Service, said his mantra is to elevate in-state technology innovation in the hopes of attracting young adult workers, such as engineers.

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They might attend school in Iowa, he said, but largely pursue jobs that are located out of state.

Having a broader conversation about and expanding alternative education pathways, such as apprenticeship programs and trade schools, can help show younger Iowans there are work opportunities beyond those that require a four-year degree, added panelist Laurie Worden, director for Workplace Learning Connection at Kirkwood Community College.

“There’s no reason that an 18- or a 20-year-old can’t be working or paying their own way in this world,” she said.

Looking “outside the norm” and reaching out to correctional facilities also can give employers access to a motivated new labor force, some members of which have undergone training in areas such as gardening or cooking while incarcerated, said Ryan West, deputy director for Iowa Workforce Development.

“Most of them, when you get an opportunity to speak to them, (say), ‘We just want a second chance. Can we apply for jobs?’” he said.

Some employers might be wary about hiring candidates from marginalized groups because of concerns for the company’s reputation, or administrative ones, such as potential effects on liability insurance, said Kyle Horn, founder and director for America’s Job Honors Program, based in Des Moines.

The answer, Horn said, is not to indiscriminately hire former inmates, for example, but to give them a fair shake if they can adequately articulate in interviews how they’ve turned their lives around.

He advised against falling victim to a “grab bag of nebulous fears.”

“The likelihood in such a situation is not that you’ll get an adequate employee, but an exemplary employee,” he said. “People who have been through hell, they know the value of a job in their lives. They’re not likely to feel entitled, they’re likely to feel grateful.”

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The New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative, or NewBoCo, was a community partner with The Gazette in the Business Breakfast.

The second Gazette breakfast of the year, on development of cities’ core districts, is set for June 20, again in the Geonetric Building.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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