Chad Schreck, executive director of the Midwest Partnership, speaks with Kristina Soyer, a Des Moines Area Community College instructor, at an economic-development event in Carroll.
Chad Schreck, executive director of the Midwest Partnership, speaks with Kristina Soyer, a Des Moines Area Community College instructor, at an economic-development event in Carroll.

September 18, 2014

College is not the only route to a financially rewarding career in central and western Iowa as more and more vocations will demand so-called “middle-skills” jobs, technical and craftsman and computer expertise, says Chad Schreck, a Carroll County native and economic-development leader for a cluster of eight counties in Iowa.

“If you don’t want to go to college, that’s OK,” Schreck said in leading off the Western Iowa Advantage Employer Educator Summit at the Carrollton Centre Wednesday attended by about 200 people.

Western Iowa Advantage is an economic-growth advocacy group representing Adair, Audubon, Crawford, Carroll, Greene, Guthrie, Ida and Sac counties. Business leaders, educators and government-organization representatives attended the event.

A key takeaway: the region is in desperate need of employees with technical skills, and many of those jobs, from plumbing to electrical work to welding to heating-and-air conditioning to health-care technology, can yield good-paying jobs with handsome benefits without requiring a four-year college degree and the debt often associated with earning that diploma.

The message, said Schreck, who holds a master’s degree from Drake University, isn’t to disparage college, but to highlight workforce facts. In 2018, in the United States, 33 percent of jobs will require at least a four-year college degree with 57 percent demanding technical skills. Only 10 percent will be unskilled, according to Western Iowa Advantage.

Locally, for example, companies that rely on welding have great demand for people with those skills, Schreck said.

“They’re looking for even more, and younger, people,” Schreck said.

Schreck said health care and manufacturing would continue to be growth areas for the region.

Joe Greving, a Carroll native living in Johnston, and a founding partner of Top Tier Holdings, LLC, a private-equity firm that invests in Iowa businesses, offered several suggestions for filling the middle-skills gap:

— Convert lower-skilled workers into middle-skilled.

— Use internships and job-shadowing opportunities to expose people to opportunities in skilled positions.

— Businesses and community colleges should be more aggressive in making students and parents aware of skilled opportunities.

— Assist lower-skilled workers with better “soft skills” like showing up for work on time so they can climb into the middle class.

Greving urged young people to focus on the current demand for certain occupations.

“The reality for Iowans is that we need more plumbers,” Greving said. “How many young plumbers do you know?”

Another issue is the flagging work ethic of younger people, and many parents’ seeming acceptance of it, he said.

“Most parents are not willing to do anything about it,” Greving said.

Anthony Donahoo, environmental and spatial technology (EAST) instructor in Creston, opened his portion of the summit with a story about his mother — she worked hard, first to raise two children alone while completing her nursing degree, and then to rebuild her life after abuse of prescription drugs. Her attitude throughout — one that students also need to learn — is that “no job is too small.”

Donahoo teaches the only EAST course in Iowa, though the program is extremely popular in Kansas, where the format is being used even at the elementary level, he said. The class is student-driven, Donahoo explained — the students choose their projects; fail and adjust their strategies on their own; are allowed to fire group members who do not carry their weight; and report, not to the teacher, but to “supervisors” in the community who work in the fields where the students’ projects could be applied.

Donahoo facilitates the class, steering them away from ever-popular fundraising projects, which do not require higher-order thinking skills, and toward more physical projects, such as meeting an infrastructure need, where the students utilize design software and work with county or city engineers.

The key is to tell students where to look, not to provide the answers, Donahoo said, adding that the educational system can too often become a crutch for students instead of a tool. The classroom should be more like a video game — players can fail repeatedly and adjust at each turn until they figure out how to complete an objective on their own.

Through the projects, students learn soft skills, such as how to communicate or comport themselves when meeting with city leaders, or the importance of punctuality. They can take these skills to college, or straight into the workforce, Donahoo said.

“For me as an educator to say four-year college is the only way to go is ignorant and wrong,” he said.

Kyle Horn, founder and director of the Iowa Job Honor Awards, worked to highlight Iowa’s “untapped” workforce.

Those potential employees can have felony records, disabilities, English struggles or sporadic work history.

But Iowa employers can no longer afford to be as picky as they used to, Horn said.

The most common number heard in workforce development is Iowa’s unemployment rate. Sitting at 4.5 percent, about 74,000 individuals in Iowa are unemployed — enough to fill Kinnick Stadium, but not nearly enough to fill the needs of Iowa’s expanding companies. But most of these individuals are only nominally employable due to lack of skills, bad social skills or a lack of reliable transportation, Horn said.

But there is actually a larger pool of employees — about 300,000 individuals are employable, but not seeking a job, and therefore not included in the unemployment rate calculation. Sometimes those individuals are retired, have chosen to stay home to raise children, or are students — but sometimes they are refugees who have trouble with English, disabled or older individuals who have faced discrimination, or residents with criminal records or little employment history.

But two-thirds of Iowa’s unemployed have been unemployed for longer than six months — meaning long-term unemployment shouldn’t be such a red flag anymore.

Horn stressed that not all of these individuals are employable — some ex-cons haven’t changed and some individuals would rather collect unemployment or disability checks than work every day — but people can change. Horn believes employment organizations and community- and faith-based organizations can help connect these genuine employment-seekers with local companies if the companies are willing to take some risk.

“We’re not talking about charity jobs. These individuals don’t have a sense of entitlement, but of appreciation,” Horn said.

But employers have to work to understand the challenges these employees face. Only then can these individuals join the workforce and gain the “freedom and dignity that comes with financial independence and a job,” he concluded.