How do you build a community? As Jennifer Andrade has found, you accomplish it one family at a time.

While many Iowa communities are struggling to find skilled workers and professionals to fill the workforce needs of businesses that want to grow or relocate in the state, a number of families living 3,600 miles away in one of America’s poorest territories — Puerto Rico — are unable to find work or are in low-wage positions in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

Andrade decided to use her experience in workforce development and marketing, along with a healthy dose of compassion, to create Avance Alliance, which offers a turnkey suite of services to connect well-educated professionals and skilled workers from Puerto Rico with job opportunities in Iowa. Avance (pronounced ah-von-say) is derived from the Spanish verb for moving forward.

“My passion has always been workforce and people,” said Andrade, a Clear Lake resident. She previously was a workforce adviser and marketing specialist with Iowa Workforce Development. She has worked with Latino families throughout her career, most recently as executive director of the Mitchell County Economic Development Commission, a position she left in August 2018.

She recently returned from a second visit to Puerto Rico, where she has been forging relationships with educational institutions and other organizations to spread the word about opportunities in Iowa – where business leaders are in need of skilled workers and the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained at 2.4 percent in February, according to IWD.

Through her startup company, Andrade feels she is able to leverage the marketing and economic development skills she’s acquired over the past decade, along with her fluency in Spanish and experience working with Latinos, to benefit both worlds.

“I absolutely enjoy it,” she said. “I feel like my whole career has led me to this point.”

In addition to recruiting talent from Puerto Rico, Andrade coordinates housing arrangements and any necessary drug testing, and helps with arrangements needed for licensing or certifications that the person will need to obtain to work in Iowa. She is also working with community and economic development leaders in north-central Iowa to try to ensure a smooth transition for families into their new communities.

“My goal is to take any needless stress off the family. Making a move over 3,600 miles away is enough stress in itself,” she said. “These people have been through so much stress, we don’t need to add to it. After all they’ve been through with economic hardship and the hurricane, we have an opportunity to be a blessing to them and offer a fresh start.”

Earlier this month, Andrade welcomed her first family from Puerto Rico to Iowa at Des Moines International Airport. The recent college graduates, Ramon de Oleo Perez and his wife, Lizbeth Lamboy Vega, first met Andrade at a job fair in Puerto Rico. One of the things that helped to sell the couple on Iowa was a video produced by Andrade that highlighted opportunities in north-central Iowa with L.R. Falk Construction, a third-generation stone and sand quarry operator based in St. Ansgar.

With Andrade’s assistance, Perez interviewed by Skype with the construction materials company, and landed a position with Falk as a maintenance technician. Vega, who has a degree in medicine, plans to obtain her medical license in Iowa to practice as a pediatrician.

“Here in Puerto Rico the crime rate is very high right now, so we were looking for a good place to raise our family,” Vega said in an interview by Skype while they were still in Puerto Rico. “When Jennifer told us about Iowa, it was not a complicated decision to move there — it was better than here.”

The couple is among the first of what Andrade anticipates will be a steady supply of educated and skilled candidates for a variety of Iowa companies in her region of the state.

Another employer that she has been working with, Grain Millers in St. Ansgar, has hired a young U.S. Army veteran and his wife, who will be moving from Puerto Rico to Iowa with their two young children within the next couple of weeks.

Sending jobs out of state  

Andrade moved to Clear Lake about 12 years ago from Dallas, Texas, where she had worked with the Latino community in marketing and public relations and learned to speak Spanish. Her first position with Iowa Workforce Development was working at the New Iowan Center in Mason City, providing outreach services in 19 counties to migrant farm workers.

For the past several years as a business marketing specialist with IWD and later working for Mitchell County, Andrade heard a familiar refrain from employers.

“I had multiple companies telling me they were sending jobs out of state, or they were not doing expansions or they were turning down expansions because they couldn’t find the workers they needed,” she said.

At the same time, she was aware of the hardship in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria because she has a number of close friends from there who moved to Iowa, among them a friend she helped find a chemical engineering position.

After Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, Puerto Rican residents were migrating in droves from the U.S. territory to the states, and that’s when Andrade began thinking seriously about how she might make an impact for both those families and for the Iowa communities that needed workers.

“They’re either unemployed or underemployed, and with the high cost of living, they’re living paycheck to paycheck and can’t get ahead to provide for their family,” she said.

Yet the majority have skills or education, because the education system in Puerto Rico encourages high school graduates to pursue vocational training for those who don’t pursue higher education. “So there’s a deep talent pool. Obviously, the biggest challenge is the language barrier, in some cases.”

Community partnerships a key

Typically, recruiters charge employers between 25% and 30% of the first year’s annual salary; Andrade said she hopes to create a hybrid model of funding her startup business, with a base of community funding that will make fees affordable to small businesses as well as larger companies.  

Andrade has approached companies primarily in the manufacturing, construction and health care industries, but with her background in workforce development, she’s more comfortable reaching out to community government and economic development agencies.

Earlier this year, she presented Avance Alliance’s business model to the board of the North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Commission.

“Our board is very excited about it,” said Chad Schreck, president and CEO of North Iowa Corridor EDC. “We’ve got a lot of jobs in rural Iowa and north Iowa especially. We’ve gotten some really strong interest from potential employers. … We’re looking for good people that want to work, and really our only limiting factor to growth has been [finding] people.”  

Schreck said he favors partnering with the North Central Iowa Alliance, a seven-county regional development agency, to enable Avance Alliance to broaden its efforts.

“We need to capitalize on the strengths of each of our communities, because one community is not going to have everything,” he said. “We’re right in all the center of that [region] and the bigger population center. I would see our role as leading that charge.”

‘Feeding off each other’

An employer who has been engaged early with the initiative is Lindsey Falk, president of L.R. Falk Construction, who so far has interviewed four Puerto Rican residents through Avance Alliance. In addition to hiring Perez, Falk has also hired another Puerto Rican recruited by Andrade, who will begin work next month.

“They’re all very eager to improve their situation, very eager to work and very pleasant,” Falk said. “Everyone I’ve talked to is looking for a new start, because where they’re at is so limited.”

Skilled positions, such as the maintenance technician opening that was filled by Perez, are more difficult to fill, Falk said. He has helped to secure rental housing for each of the two new employees.

“The unemployment rate is so low that we’re losing employers and getting workers from other companies, so we’re kind of feeding off each other,” he said. “We need to bring new people in, rather than just trading people that we have.”  

Falk said he feels it will be important to educate local residents regarding the initiative. “There are a lot of misconceptions,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that Puerto Ricans are full citizens, and I want to let people know we’re hiring them as full-time workers, permanent workers, not seasonal or temporary workers. … We’re not trying to hire people for this year or next year, we’re trying to hire them for forever, to be a long-term employee in our area.”

Although Mitchell County is a rural community, Falk said his impression is that the quiet, safe lifestyle that it offers may appeal to many in Puerto Rico, given the turmoil they’ve been through. “Surprisingly, it seems like a good fit, even though [Iowa and Puerto Rico] couldn’t be more different.”  

Andrade recently hired her first employee, a Puerto Rican resident, who will provide a vital personal presence in Puerto Rico. The office, in a coworking space, is located about an hour’s drive south of San Juan, the capital.

Working with north Iowa employers to help them to understand the opportunities in relocating talent to Iowa will be one of the EDC’s most important tasks, Schreck said. “If this becomes a program we put in place, we really have to help those companies take advantage of it,” he said. “As EDCs and communities, it’s imperative that we get it in front of the businesses and provide the resources they need to make it successful. If you look at the biggest potential weakness, it’s businesses not taking advantage of it.”

Schreck, who worked closely with Andrade on several projects while she worked for the state and Mitchell County, said he appreciates the comprehensive approach that she is taking to try to address all facets of relocating workers, particularly housing.

“What’s really neat with Jen is that she’s looking to coordinate this as a communitywide effort — how do you get plugged into the community?” he said. “The last thing you want is people to come in and not feel comfortable.”

On the recruitment side of the business, Andrade is using her marketing background to build a suite of bilingual videos as a tool to present to potential workers in Puerto Rico. As new families from Puerto Rico begin moving to Iowa, Avance Alliance will ask them to be featured in testimonials to build that video resource, she said.  

“They can’t put their family in the car and say, ‘Honey, let’s go check out Iowa this weekend,’ ” Andrade said. “We have to show our story through video. And so we created videos to talk about the companies, the communities, the schools, what are the opportunities? We’ve created some testimonials from families who have already come here and are doing well to talk about what life is like here, what their experience has been.”