Art Cullen
Art Cullen
May 7, 2013

No matter which way you cut it, Iowa's community colleges are in for a boost of several million dollars - the Senate wants $25 million more - for workforce training and adult basic education. The state is beginning to recognize what a special place these colleges hold in a place like Storm Lake where workplace skills are rapidly evolving.

Day and night, Iowa Central Community College in Storm Lake is teaching welders, machinists, maintenance workers and nurses for the trades that are growing fastest right here. The local center attached to the high school is customizing its curriculum every semester based on what employers are demanding. Nobody else can fill that role.

Storm Lake is home to a burgeoning population of immigrants, young and old, who are drawn to The City Beautiful because of entry-level employment. They quickly find that their language and job skills are insufficient to move up the economic ladder. The community college is there to help anyone take the next step.

They don't have the high-flying football teams or research labs that lend themselves to an acronym. So they traditionally have not received top billing with the Iowa Legislature. Recognition is growing as everyone realizes that a vo-tech degree is the new high school diploma. That's why the Storm Lake Charter School, where a student graduates in five years with the diploma and an associate's degree, is so important to preparing our youth to earn a living right here.

Last year the Legislature appropriated an additional $20 million to provide localized workforce training through community colleges for targeted industries (in Storm Lake, welding) to the neediest applicants - the unemployed or the working poor.

There is a transition under foot that is phasing out the old, depressing Iowa Workforce Development Offices that were supposed to counsel the unskilled and unemployable. Those efforts were doomed to frustration on both sides of the counter. Community colleges can engage the unskilled and vault them in a new direction that serves the individual and the community. Some vestiges of the old workforce development model are left over, but those tasks can be easily folded into the college framework.

Eventually workforce and economic development initiatives should all be centered on the community college. They are governed by locally elected boards, they employ professional staff, and their sole mission is to educate. As we know, education is the best way up that ladder. We are grateful that the Legislature is realizing how to help them reach their full potential.