Strong benefits, flexibility helping companies widen candidate pool

Malcolm Johnson (left) and Kenn Kreutzer board a van that will take them back to Cedar Rapids after their shift at Front
Malcolm Johnson (left) and Kenn Kreutzer board a van that will take them back to Cedar Rapids after their shift at Frontier Co-Op in Norway this past February. The company partners with local organizations to provide on-the-job training for individuals in need of work. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Working families know the cost of child care can eat into a paycheck.

“When Frontier hired me, that was my main criteria,” said Caitlin Wiedenheft. communications specialist at Frontier Co-op’s Norway, Iowa, headquarters. “I started looking at the full benefits package instead of just the salary.”

A statewide unemployment rate of 2.5 percent has Eastern Iowa employers examining their own benefit packages. Their immediate focus is to attract and retain qualified workers in a tight labor market.

But benefit changes also are fueled by a generational shift, said Allan Boettger, senior director of corporate and community outreach at the University of Iowa’s Pomerantz Career Center.

“Most of the people are focused on their culture and evaluating their culture to make it appealing for multiple generations,” Boettger said. “Work-life balance means different things to different generations. For Gen X, it means working at work, and not working when I’m not at work.”

Strategies include flexible schedules, working from home and an emphasis on “up-training,” or employer-supported programs to improve their workers’ job-related skills.

At Centro Inc.’s North Liberty plant, training may begin on a new worker’s first day, according to Rhonda Griffin, director of human resources for the plastics fabrication company.

“We consider people that, at first glance, don’t have the skills and experience that we’re used to hiring,” Griffin said. “We bring them in for an extended interview, we provide them training and opportunities to learn the skills and show us they have the aptitude to become competent.”


The idea is to draw candidates whose work experience may not seem directly applicable to manufacturing.

“People who have had to follow a process in their jobs, but it’s a different type of work,” Griffin said. “Food-service workers, for example.”

The effort called for some changes in how Centro evaluates job candidates.

“A big piece of that is being mindful of the essential skills like attitude, the soft skills,” Griffin said. “Usually if they have that, we can train them in the rest.”

After about a year, employees hired through Centro’s “train-up” program have a retention rate about 25 percent higher than average, according to Griffin. About 25 of the plant’s 450 employees have completed the program.

“It’s a win-win,” she said. “They get to improve their life, and we get to get our positions filled by someone who’s loyal and dedicated.”

Building an employee base

In-house apprenticeship isn’t new — a five-year-old Department of Labor program administered by the Iowa Economic Development Authority helps companies cover training and material costs.

In August, the IEDA issued $400,000 in grants to 13 Iowa companies and partner agreements with community colleges and school districts under the Future Ready Iowa program.

“We have seen a number of companies using that model because it works, and they’re building their employee base,” said Jill Lippincott, the IEDA’s program manager for internships and apprenticeships.

“An employer can bring on an individual who doesn’t have the exact skills for the opening they’re looking for, but they upskill and train them,” Lippincott said. “If an apprentice stays on nine months past the date of apprenticeship, they typically stay with employer 91 percent of the time.”


“I’ve got lots of people who are interested in apprenticeships,” said Aaron Horn, chief operating officer of the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative, or NewBoCo. “I just need more companies who know what they are.”

Launched about a year ago, NewBoCo’s Delta V coding program grew out of its own need for software developers.

“We started an IT apprenticeship specifically for ourselves, but we also offer it to any local company that wants an apprentice,” Horn said. “You go through Delta V code school and then, once you’re through with the school, you’re basically a paid apprentice.”

The program’s first class included two apprentices for NewBoCo and three for Cedar Rapids software developer MSuite. Employers can pay the apprentice’s salary during the 20-week course, their tuition, or both, Horn said.

“They literally took somebody who’s in the construction field making $10 an hour, and he’s now making $60,000 or so as a coder,” IEDA’s Lippincott said. “It’s a two-way street where the employer invests in the employee and they have the retention.”

The IEDA offers a scholarship for Delta V students covering tuition, a laptop and textbooks.

Delta V’s current class of 10 graduates Nov. 22.

“It started with four people the first year, and we’ve doubled that,” Horn said. “Over the next year we’ll graduate 18 or so, and we hope to hit 40 next year.”

NewBoCo plans to add night and weekend classes in January, as well as new apprenticeship offerings in digital marketing.

“We really try to listen to what companies are having a hard time hiring for,” Horn said. “If we can create more talent in that space, let’s go for it.”

Widening the employer’s candidate pool is a primary goal.

“It’s a very critical topic for our employers,” said Jennifer Daly, president and CEO of ICR IOWA, a joint effort of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the Iowa City Area Development Group. “They understand they’re going to have to continue to diversity their workforce if they’re going to stay competitive.”

ACT found its Connected Team Member program, which allows employees to work from home, has helped diversify its workforce.

“By recruiting nationally and having people who are able to work remotely from Atlanta, Houston, New York, it does open up our pool,” said Mark Larson, senior director for talent strategy for the not-for-profit that supplies assessment, research and program management services in education and workforce development.

Larson said about 200 of ACT’s 1,140 Iowa City-based employers work under the program begun in 2014. That doesn’t include staff who may work from home occasionally.

“We also have people in Iowa City who may work two days a week, connected,” Larson said. “They don’t have to deal with traffic. They may feel it gives more time to deal with work.”

Flexible scheduling helps, too.

“It does seem to help with retention, it helps with team member satisfaction with their work and their work environment,” Larson said.

The ability to work from virtually anywhere helps ACT retain workers who move away.

“We’ve had a number of team members who have had to move but were able to continue working for ACT,” Larson said. “That would have been team members who (we would) have lost.”

But manufacturers such as Centro and Whirlpool need workers on-site. In July, Whirlpool began testing a commuter bus service between Cedar Rapids and its Amana refrigerator plant. The pilot program began with about 56 workers, according to a company announcement.


Management at the plant declined to comment until the experimental program’s future is decided.

Child care

Frontier Co-op’s family-friendly day care policy dates to 1976, according to Wiedenheft. About 65 children are enrolled in Frontier’s state-certified day care center, down from about 100 over the summer.

About 400 of Frontier’s 570 employees work at the Norway office. Those who don’t are eligible for a subsidy that covers all but about $2 per hour of child care costs.

“The cost of on-site child care can be expensive, but it’s something we’ve recommended to other companies,” Wiedenheft said.

The service pays off in Frontier’s retention and recruitment.

“You look at salary and benefits and 401(k) and all of that, but also, ‘What am I saving by going to this day care?’” she said, recounting her own experience. “If I ever leave, I have to get this much (more) to offset the cost of child care.”

About 45 employees currently receive educational benefits under a program started in 1999.

“You can get your master’s, bachelor’s and (associate’s) certificate paid for,” she said.

Some local governments are working with employers to ensure new workers can find affordable housing.

“A challenge can be workforce housing, frankly,” IEDA’s Lippincott said. “Iowa’s housing stock is quite old and we have a really high occupancy rate. It can be hard to retain folks if you don’t have that affordable housing.”

Lippincott noted Maquoketa recently developed 10 single-family, bungalow-style homes built around a park, designed to be affordable to young families. Dubuque has committed $1.5 million over five to seven years to assist working families with their housing costs.

“If you can get housing near that job, that really helps with retention,” Lippincott said.


Keeping and attracting workers to keep the state’s economy humming calls for acknowledging younger employees’ interest outside the workplace, according to Boettger. That can include paid days off for participation in community improvement efforts.

“The quality of life, living outside of work, is really important to people,” he said. “One of the things our students are looking for is the ability to make a difference.

“They’re looking for a company that’s committed to the community, and companies are starting to put that into their job descriptions.”

Looking elsewhere

More businesses are thinking outside the state, and ever farther, to find workers.

Exide Technologies, based in Georgia with facilities in Manchester, and Winnebago Industries in Forest City looked to Puerto Rico, after those islands were hit by hurricanes in September 2017.

And State Rep. Joe Mitchell, R-Mount Pleasant, is working on a plan to start a public-private partnership to work with organizations that currently are recruiting from Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories to fill labor force needs.

His goal is to help the recruitment organizations working with manufacturers “to fill the workforce void we have.”

“One of industry’s biggest challenge is finding people to come and stay. At 3 percent unemployment, in rural places specifically, it’s extremely hard to find workers,” he said.

“Frankly I don’t care about the details of how we get there, I just know this is something we need to do to get workers here to live and work in Iowa and grow our population.”

Gazette Des Moines bureau reporter James Q. Lynch contributed to this article.

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