Guest Columnist

How to close the workforce skills gap in Iowa

A digital engineering student at Kirkwood Community College's Washington County Regional Center in on Thursday, October
A digital engineering student at Kirkwood Community College's Washington County Regional Center in on Thursday, October 09, 2014. (Sy Bean/The Gazette)

Despite how it may feel, COVID-19 has not changed everything. For years, workforce challenges have been a top concern for Iowa’s business leaders. Now our economic recovery hinges on getting our workforce back to work with the skills to tackle new challenges. To do this, we will need to address two gaps preventing us from succeeding in an unknown future.

First, we need to address the skills gap. Too many Iowans lack the skills or credentials needed to compete for jobs. Although we have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, our students are falling short in postsecondary education completion. We must cultivate talent here in Iowa by improving cradle to career education, strengthening training and retraining programs, and working with employers to create clear pathways to available jobs. Kirkwood Community College leads this region’s efforts on the front lines, but policymakers have a role to play in providing the vision and financial support to accelerate progress.

Funding Future Ready Iowa will help our students see the connection between the classroom and their future. In the wake of COVID-19 related academic interruptions, maintaining and incrementally increasing funding to our K-12 institutions is needed. Currently the state of Iowa ranks 30th for per pupil spending. We support policies that modernize the education funding formula, which would give school districts the flexibility to address their unique needs and manage their financial resources to ensure resilience and recovery. We also need to support innovative thinking and educational partnership by promoting and rewarding high-quality teachers and tracking student progress to help our education system better align with the skills our employers need.

Our postsecondary institutions are a vital piece of the talent pipeline and we support funding requests for community colleges, the Regents’, and grant opportunities for our private institutions, including retraining dollars for those displaced by the pandemic and looking to upskill.

Next, we need to address the people gap. As Iowa’s population continues to stagnate, we need to remove every barrier to work for those already here and develop new strategies to attract workers to the state. To close the people gap, we must address access to child care, work toward economic equality, and make Iowa welcoming to diverse populations.

Iowa lost $935M annually as a result of child care breakdowns before COVID-19, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Now, Iowa’s parents face the question of returning to work amid changing child care situations, while child care providers face rising operating costs to reopen. We support policies that address the child care “cliff effect,” increase reimbursement rates, and encourage local businesses, communities and nonprofits to develop innovative solutions to support parents in the workplace.

Adding more workers into the pool of applicants for businesses is also a step we must be open to in order to close the people gap. Approximately 95 percent of current prison inmates in Iowa will be re-entering society at some point. Policies that will expand high school equivalency diploma pathway and apprenticeship programs will help prepare incarcerated individuals for successful re-entry to Iowa communities. We must also embrace all populations to remain and move to Iowa to grow our population and allow businesses to access to a diverse workforce.

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Workforce challenges have been front and center for years. The pandemic has created considerable disruption across the entire talent pipeline, which has given us an opportunity to rethink our approach to developing, training, and retaining workforce. Removing opportunity gaps in our education system, addressing barriers to employment, and creating welcoming and inclusive policies will put us on a course for our businesses and our economy to thrive for years to come.

Kim Casko is president and CEO of the Iowa City Business Partnership. Kate Moreland is president of the Iowa City Area Development Group. Doug Neumann is executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.

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