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Summit strives to engage employers


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Economic development efforts have often focused on the infrastructure companies needed to expand or locate in Iowa, said Steve Chapman, chairman of ITAGroup Inc., who got involved in such initiatives at a young age. But a few years ago, worries of a looming worker shortage spread throughout Iowa and some companies began to look elsewhere to expand because Greater Des Moines didn’t have the worker base they needed.

“We were interested in the jobs, because with the jobs came money, came taxes, came growth, infrastructure,” Chapman said. “It helped us do what we’ve done in Des Moines. But we weren’t looking at where these people were going to come from to fill these jobs.”

He made these remarks at a Youth in Business Summit in Des Moines last Wednesday. The event was a culmination of an 18-month research project that looked at the dropout crisis in Des Moines Independent Community School District and how students could be motivated to graduate and start careers. The event also was designed to offer ways employers could work with youth organizations and schools, realizing that high school students are an important labor pool to help fill a workforce gap in the future.

Though the recession has mitigated these fears for now, Sue Gibbons, Des Moines Area Community College’s (DMACC) Career Pathways coordinator, said she hears from companies that “it’s not if the economy turns around but when, and we’ll be right back to where we were before. So we have kind of been given a little respite here to do some planning, strategizing to get something in place so (the worker shortage) is not as severe as we were anticipating a year ago.”

Chapman echoed the need for businesses to get involved. After serving as chair of the 2006 United Way of Central Iowa campaign, he said, “I realized that we can solve our employment issues, we can solve a lot of the challenges that we face in our community … if businesses get involved with educators, get involved with support groups and make a commitment to improve it.”

Since the United Way campaign, Chapman has become chair of Central Iowa Works, which replaced the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium and focuses on alleviating worker and skills shortages in Central Iowa. The group coordinated the Multiple Education Pathways Blueprint (MEPB) project, which looked at the dropout crisis, with a $500,000 grant the city of Des Moines received from the U.S. Department of Labor. Other leaders in the project include people from Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa, the Greater Des Moines Partnership and Iowa Workforce Development.

Representatives from about 25 employers and 45 education and community-based organizations attended the Youth in Business Summit.

“Business has not been generally involved in the development of education curriculum and helping create a linkage between students, training and work,” said DMACC President Rob Denson. But, he added, “I think we’re well on the way” to creating that connection now.

Engaging youth

Des Moines public schools had a 74 percent graduation rate in the 2007-2008 school year and more than 40 percent of students who enter ninth grade don’t finish high school in four years. In a video shown at the event, students offered reasons such as a tough home life, pregnancy, diversity challenges and lack of motivation for reasons to leave the traditional school setting and how alternative programs, such as Scavo Campus, helped.

The MEPB report listed five priorities in addressing this issue:

• Creation of early-warning and intervention systems, development of a centralized resource and referral intermediary, and data sharing among community stakeholders;• Community involvement in development of multiple pathways to graduation to include youths, businesses and youth-serving organizations from the region;

• Coordination efforts to align education and community service providers with Central Iowa Works;

• Leadership involvement with policy and reform that promotes and develops multiple pathways to graduation;

• Awareness of the dropout crisis and the need for intervention.

One of the major components missing in these solutions, Denson said, is a connection between youths and businesses and to have an entity that can serve as an intermediary to connect the two.

Best practices

To encourage this, the conference highlighted examples of how organizations have achieved these goals. Programs that offer job shadowing, internships and summer jobs, the speakers said, help give relevance to what the students are learning in the classroom.

In one example, Mary Lou Elacher, executive director of Workplace Learning Connection in Eastern Iowa, explained how her organization has served as an intermediary between schools and employers, connecting students to internships, career-day learning, job opportunities and more. Among the group’s successes: 38 high school students have participated in an unpaid internship at St. Luke’s Hospital over six years, 13 of whom have been hired on full time and every year, the organization sets up 2,500 job shadows with 41 high schools.

Educators and employers want to work together, Erlacher said, “but the problem is, it’s confusing and time-consuming for everyone,” which is why an intermediary like Workplace Learning Connection is beneficial.

The Iowa Department of Economic Development has given $900,000 to the Iowa Department of Education to provide up to $60,000, with some matching dollars, to areas served by community colleges to set up intermediary organizations.

Alexis Devine, director of Lifespan Youth Development and Youth Employment programs in Rhode Island, shared how her program helps provide at-risk youths summer jobs within Lifespan Corp. In 2008, her group helped 100 youths, up from its pilot phase in 2004, which served 18 youths. Thirty percent of the teenagers who participate have gone on to get permanent jobs with Lifespan.

Other attendees at the conference seemed to be there to network and share their own practices as well. Sara Wickham of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. explained how her company offers one to two internships to Scavo women students a year, and the Technology Association of Iowa has recently started HyperStream, a program where companies work with students on technology-focused projects.

“I was really glad to see all the really successful programs built around the high school age,” Gibbons said. “Talking with employers, many of them do college internships, but I haven’t heard much about high school. … It needs to start earlier than college.”

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