CEDAR RAPIDS — With living wages and better career opportunities, parents wouldn’t need to come home from work stressed about how to make ends meet, Cedar Rapids native Izaah Knox hopes.
The city’s residents wouldn’t need to worry about insurance coverage and could take vacations, and ultimately enjoy what is life as usual for some.
As it stands, Knox told the City Council on Tuesday that Iowa’s second-largest city is a great place for so many individuals, but not for all as inequities persist in the workforce.
“We need to make it a great place for all,” Knox said. But the Washington High School graduate runs a not-for-profit organization in Des Moines that he expects could help fill opportunity gaps for underserved populations.
City Council backs agreement
Seeing the organization as a potential solution to advance the city’s workforce goals, the Cedar Rapids City Council backed a resolution Tuesday allowing the city manager to sign a $100,000 agreement to partner with Urban Dreams through June 30, 2021. The partnership would connect people who typically face barriers to success with job-training programs and opportunities in the local workforce.
“We know a lot of people are staring on a starting line that was many meters behind other people’s starting lines, so we have to help catch them up,” said Knox, the organization’s executive director.
Help for employees and employers
Recruitment will 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 under- or unemployed.
Knox said Urban Dreams creates sustainable pipelines for these individuals to work with local businesses through established partnerships supporting both the worker and the employer.
For the prospective employee, there are training courses that teach the “soft skills” needed to succeed in the workforce, such as how to get feedback, dress appropriately for a business environment and manage time effectively.
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Once they’ve entered the workforce, there are opportunities to job-shadow multiple departments within the organization, hear from guest speakers and to receive on-the-job training.
The employer receives technical assistance in cultural competency and program evaluations.
“We are the glue that sticks people together with agency,” Negus Imhotep, Urban Dreams’ workforce development coordinator, said in an interview. “ ... If organizations are open and state that they want diversity, inclusion and equity in their businesses, then they’re going to open up the doors. If not, you’re going to maintain what you have.”
While the Des Moines location offers substance abuse, mental health, job training and inmate re-entry services, the Cedar Rapids partnership would focus on cultivating a skilled workforce.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on the plans, Knox said, but the organization soon will open its Cedar Rapids location at the Ladd Library’s Opportunity Center. The agreement with the Opportunity Center will need to be finalized after council approval Tuesday.
The organization will hire at least two staff members from the area “to make sure it’s a real Cedar Rapids effort,” Knox said.
City Manager Jeff Pomeranz told The Gazette he thinks it will start small, perhaps with about 100 students or other individuals, and build over time to employ individuals who have not traditionally been part of the workforce to fill key positions in local companies.
“It’s basically an apprenticeship model program and it’ll be something that’ll hopefully benefit a portion of our community that really needs just a helping hand,” Pomeranz said.
Jasmine Almoayyed, city economic development manager, said many well-paying jobs go vacant because they struggle to find people with the right skills or to market the opening.
One of the city’s economic development goals set in 2019 was to address some of those issues with recruiting and retaining a middle-skills workforce.
By December, she said, Pomeranz and Knox began talks to bring the dream of a partnership with the city of Cedar Rapids to life.
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“We have so many great agencies across the city doing work with various populations that sometimes, I think, have a hard time getting in front of companies, and then companies who ... so many people have never heard of,” Almoayyed said.
‘Giving people hope’
Bobby Stanley, an education coordinator who has been with the organization for 20 years, said he thinks Urban Dreams will make an impact in Cedar Rapids as the team works to find key community leaders who have the social networks to connect the organization with the people who need its services the most.
“I am always about giving people hope. That goes a long way,” Stanley said. “The best that you can do is put a person in a position to be successful. Then the rest is up to them.”
Council member Dale Todd, who chairs the city’s Public Safety and Youth Services Committee, said as the city has shifted from a manufacturing community to one more oriented around technology, the city has lost “navigators” who help connect people with jobs.
He said he sees this work also advancing the city’s anti-violence strategy by providing people with work and a living wage.
“There’s been a gap in this community for a long time in terms of having somebody or an entity that can really do that on a street sense, and so this is going to be a great opportunity at the start,” Todd said.
Knox said the nonprofit aims to build sustainable connections between employers and the community that ultimately lift people out of generational poverty and fix systemic inequities, especially racial gaps.
“That’s what it’ll look like, where there’s this pipeline from communities to these businesses that never end, that are generational,” Knox said. “ ... That every person in Cedar Rapids has opportunities for gainful employment, and they feel comfortable going after those opportunities.”
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