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Help wanted: Workers skilled in industrial arts

State senators Kinney and Mathis talk jobs at North Liberty meeting
(Right to left) Senator Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford) was joined by Senator Liz Mathis (D-Hiawatha) and Representative Amy Nielsen (D-North Liberty) at the North Liberty Community Center on Thursday, Nov. 9, to talk with area residents about the economic future of Iowa (photo by Janet Nolte).

NORTH LIBERTY— The overarching theme of the evening was jobs. But a lively discussion among legislators and about a dozen constituents ranged widely, from the role of career preparation in K-12 education, to the need for a public transit system, to the challenges of getting broadband connectivity to rural and smaller communities, and even the potential of industrial hemp as a cash crop for Iowa.
As part of a series of town meetings held throughout his district, Senator Kevin Kinney (D-Oxford) was joined by Senator Liz Mathis (D-Hiawatha) and Representative Amy Nielsen (D-North Liberty) at the North Liberty Community Center on Thursday, Nov. 9, to talk with area residents about the economic future of rural and small-town Iowa.
Kinney opened the meeting by cataloguing the bounty of state economic indicators that Iowa should be thankful for: still number one in the nation for high school graduation rates, ninth on CNBC’s 2016 ranking of top states for doing business, second in the cost of doing business, twelfth lowest for cost of living and ninth highest for quality of life.
“There are both good and bad aspects to Iowa’s economy,” said Kinney. “Our unemployment rate is just over three percent, among the lowest in the nation. On the other hand, the average Iowa household in 2016 earned almost $800 less than the national average. Compared to most other states, more Iowans have jobs, but those jobs don’t often pay as much as what workers earn in other states.”
For Kinney, the question is how to bring good jobs with higher wages to rural Iowa and smaller towns such as North Liberty.
“Iowa has a diverse economy which helps Iowa manage recessions better than a lot of other states, because we have advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, finance and insurance services, health care, especially in Des Moines area and at the University of Iowa here,” said Kinney.
“Iowa’s strong work ethic is a plus, but it’s no longer enough. Many Iowa businesses say the number one reason stopping them from coming here is that they cannot find enough skilled workers,” he said.
Senator Mathis said that business people and other stakeholders she met at a recent advanced manufacturing conference at Kirkwood Community College voiced the same message.
“There were several businesses there, several CEOs and staff, and Kirkwood was really talking about how they can customize some of their classes for certain types of traininglike laser welding, those kinds of things,” Mathis said. The idea would be to “pool some of their resources around some specialty jobs that are being created because our technology’s moving forward, but sometimes our training is not.”
Both Kinney and Mathis emphasized that bringing industrial arts back to high school curricula and making students and their parents aware of Iowa’s burgeoning demand for workers from the skilled trades are keys to attracting companies that can offer well-paying jobs. Whereas tough funding decisions led schools to abandon vocational training in skilled trades as interest in such classes dwindled in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there is now a resurgent need for workers who possess those skills.
“Because manufacturing companies are voicing their concern and they’re really stepping forward and they’re speaking directly to school districts and colleges, I think there’s much more interest in this,” said Mathis. “I think the trades have really stepped up and they have gone to career fairs as well.”
Iowa City School District Superintendent Stephen Murley attended the town meeting and offered a perspective from his school system.
“It’s kind of like a flywheel turning,” said Murley in reference to the ebb and flow of interest in skilled trades curricula.
“For years there was a very strong (construction) program in Iowa City schools, then less and less enrollment, and diminishing popularity. Eventually it ended up going away,” said Murley. “It’s really hard to get a program like that started, and one of the things we really struggle with is academic preparation is over here and career preparation is over here. We’ve got to figure out how to put those together, and how to start earlier.”
Murley said that the school district is excited about a partnership with Kirkwood Community College that has helped to expand the STEM curriculum to include building trades to better serve students who may not be college bound after high school.
“Several years ago, we worked really hard to get the architecture, construction, and engineering program moving. Hopefully, we’re thinking that we might get back into the home construction program, as in building a house with high school kids,” he said.
But exposing parents and their kids to alternatives to a four-year college career path is a challenge, according to Murley. “Parents help their kids pursue careers that they know. If they don’t know a career, they have a hard time relating to it.”
“There are some wonderful careers right out of Kirkwood right now,” Murley said.
With the partnership programs now in place, students can even get a head start on career preparation for life after high school: “Within two years, you can get in a year’s worth of work before you even get out of high school. Then it’s only a year in community college and you’re out into the work force,” he said.
Senator Mathis pointed to similar programs as well as internships and apprenticeships in the trades that Kirkwood has made available to people she works with at Four Oaks, a child welfare and behavioral health agency that helps troubled children and their families.
“We’re working with Kirkwood, with kids who are starting as young as eighth grade and trying to get them thinking about careers and in an intensive way. So from eighth grade until they’re 18, and then we will follow them until 26, until they are making a livable wage,” said Mathis.
Helping people navigate to career preparation resources and consider the possibilities is crucial. Mathis described women she steered into apprenticeships for electricians and plumbers and pipe-fitters.
“They would have never thought of that until somebody came and talked to them about it and said, ‘Here’s your salary. This is how much you can make. Do you have an aptitude for it?’ And they didn’t know, but they actually did,” she said.
“When you put it in front of somebody and they see that it’s only going to take two or three years to train and this is how much money I can make and here are my benefits, I think it becomes more appealing. We just haven’t done that enough,” Mathis noted. “And because we haven’t done it enough, (companies and potential employers) are saying, ‘We can’t fill these jobs. We don’t have enough people who are trained to fill these jobs.’ So that’s our task.”