Eastern Iowa businesses and nonprofits are getting creative to meet the region’s growing workforce demands.
This editorial board has repeatedly emphasized the need to improve and expand Iowa’s pool of qualified workers. State policymakers are making a priority of training workers to work in emerging industries, and also exploring ways to attract workers from other places to move here.
We unequivocally applaud those efforts, but we have also advocated for a third way — to engage people with barriers to employment, and bring them into the workforce. While we typically use this platform to call attention to problems, we also see the need to point out and celebrate the good work that’s already being done.
To that end, several nonprofits organizations and businesses are making important and unique contributions in the effort to connect Iowans to meaningful employment. We hope other community leaders will support and learn from these examples.
Goodwill of the Heartland
Goodwill has a long record of equipping Iowans with the skills to work. Many people may associate Goodwill with its popular retail stores empowering people with disabilities. While the organization continues to lead the way in that important work, the local affiliate and some others around the nation have pivoted in recent years to serving a broader population.
Goodwill of the Heartland started a light manufacturing certificate program two years ago, partnering with local manufacturers to offer paid training to clients, coupled with a classroom learning component. Workers leave the program with the skills to work in a wide range of manufacturing settings.
The emphasis on manufacturing skills will be significantly bolstered next year, when the affiliated nonprofit Heartland Goodwill Enterprises opens a facility in Coralville to package vegetable oil as part of a federal government contract. It is expected to create 40 jobs initially, half of which will be people with disabilities, and leaders expect there will be room for growth in the future.
Willis Dady Homeless Services, Catherine McAuley Center, Frontier Co-op
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Some of the most promising efforts to increase access to employment come from collaborations between nonprofits and businesses. One trio of local entities is leading a project we hope will become a model for others around the state, and even the nation.
Frontier Co-op, a natural food products distributor, has an ongoing need for workers, but its location about 20 miles away from Cedar Rapids in Benton County is not easily accessible for prospective workers without personal transportation.
Conversely, Cedar Rapids nonprofits like Willis Dady Homeless Services and the Catherine McAuley Center serve clients who have the ability to work, but many aren’t able to drive or don’t own vehicles. An emerging relationship between Frontier and those service providers aims to address that disconnect.
Staff members at Willis Dady and the Catherine McAuley Center connect candidates to paid apprenticeships. Workers pay a small fare to ride a bus to and from work, and stay connected to the nonprofits’ case workers in case problems arise on the job.
The program has already shown great promise, with several apprentices being hired on as regular full-time employees. While refugees, people experiencing homelessness and other vulnerable populations have some unique barriers to employment, they are proving they can make meaningful contributions to the workforce.
Iowa Department of Corrections
It also is important to recognize the government has an important role to play in fostering a healthy employment market. One area where this is especially true is the criminal justice system.
People who have been incarcerated face many challenges in finding work. Not only are employers averse to hiring people with criminal records, people leaving prison often have not had the same access to education and training as the general population.
The Iowa Department of Corrections has been offering an apprenticeship program since 2015, including high-demand fields like welding and computer operations. Additionally, the state is piloting a program for community college coursework for inmates, and policymakers hope to create a home building program at the Newton Correctional Facility.
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There is a dual benefit to these types of programs — Iowa gains qualified workers for unfilled jobs, and former inmates’ chances of reoffending decline when they have gainful employment, ultimately saving the state money.
All these are not only the right thing to do, they will secure our state’s economic future. Innovative workforce solutions give us great hope. High-quality workers are here, you just have to know where to look.