Partnership efforts putting more eyeballs on the region

Joe Gardyasz: The Greater Des Moines Partnership’s digital marketing campaign not only has been highly successful in getting more eyeballs on the region, but also has been helpful for targeting more diverse groups of potential talent by reaching out to national conferences such as the recent National Black MBA Association conference, said Mary Bontrager, the Partnership's executive vice president of talent development. Overall, 99 percent of the people reached in the targeted marketing campaigns are “new eyeballs,” she said.

Workiva plays to its strengths in recruiting 

Joe Gardyasz: Businesses should look for opportunities to use their connections outside of Iowa to recruit workers to the state, said Matt McDonald, director of talent acquisition for Workiva. “We leverage our offices in Denver and Scottsdale, because there are much larger labor pools there,” he said. And although it’s not an option for every company, a perk that Workiva offers to its top talent prospects that has been highly effective is to give them an equity stake in the company, he said. Also, flexible working arrangements have been an important benefit. About 20 percent of Workiva’s staff works from remote locations and travels to the Ames headquarters every couple of weeks. 

Connect earlier with students for work-based learning

Joe Gardyasz: There are lots of opportunities for businesses to engage with high school students, Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said. She used the forum to remind attendees that IWD in July will be launching a new work-based learning website where employers can post projects and connect with schools. More than 750 employers will initially be listed on the Iowa Clearinghouse for Work-Based Learning website. “The trend is for businesses to be a lot more involved in the education process, and I think that’s a good trend that needs to continue to happen,” she said. “We no longer can just have our kids in a silo in high school, have our kids in a silo of college, and then graduate and turn them out into the workplace and think that the businesses are going to be able to whip them into shape and teach them what they need to know. We need to be working together at much earlier stage to create those relationships.” 

Getting over trade ‘bias’ 

Kathy A. Bolten: Parents of today’s middle and high school students need to be educated about the demand for skilled tradespeople and learn that many of the jobs, such as electricians and welders, pay well and are a pathway to nearly immediate work after high school, Beth Townsend, Iowa Workforce Development director, told the group. “We need to get over this bias that we somehow created in the ‘80s and ‘90s, that the only sign of success for your kid is to graduate from a four-year college,” Townsend said. “That’s no longer the case because there are many great jobs that you can get with a two-year degree or less and make more than what you would get from a four-year degree.” According to IWD’s website, there were more than 3,600 job openings in the skilled trades in Iowa in April. The average annual salary of a first-year welder in Iowa is about $38,000, IWD data shows. An experienced electrician can make, on average, $62,000 annually.

Training a key

Perry Beeman: David Leto, president of Palmer Group, said the low unemployment rate has led many employers to hire people with potential for training. “We’re seeing clients now being more willing to hire not that perfect match but someone they can bring up in the future. Also contract labor. I’ve seen a statistic that a third of the workforce is somehow involved in contractor day labor. It’s a big number. That’s going to continue; I think of Lyft and Uber, who are moving that.”

Culture also important

Perry Beeman: Leto mentioned that for many workers, a good culture in the workplace is as important as good pay in benefits — and is critical to retain workers. “Don’t forget to tell your people “thank you” or “nice job” or “way to go” or “congratulations.” High fives go a long way. Simple stuff does make a difference. Train. Develop. Give them a voice. Give them an opportunity to lead a committee or present in front of the office.” 

Greater Des Moines beats Silicon Valley

Perry Beeman: Speakers noted that Midwestern cities tend to lose people, but Greater Des Moines is among fastest-growing, on a percentage basis. Much of that growth has come from younger workers. In fact, Mary Bontrager, executive vice president of talent development for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said, “We are the fastest-growing city, and our fastest-growing age demographic is 25- to 34-year-olds, to the point where our median age is now less than Silicon Valley’s. So we are a bit of an outlier.”

Feeling the hurt of low unemployment

Perry Beeman: When Katherine Harrington of Business Publications Corp. asked attendees to rank, with their fingers, how big a problem talent attraction is, most raised two full hands. Later, Beth Townsend, head of Iowa Workforce Development, said, “As all of your jazz hands just demonstrated, we are desperate to find workers. The companies that are successful are those that are developing that talent internally. When the Business Record staged its first “Talent War” Power Breakfast in 2014, the unemployment rate was 4.4 percent. Today’s event came with an Iowa unemployment rate at 2.4 percent — an even tighter labor market. 

Questions I wish I had asked:

Chris Conetzkey: I always end every event with a giant list of questions I didn’t get to ask. Here are a couple that I’ll ask rhetorically, with hopes of simply casting a thought into the community. Have an answer? Send it my way. 

1. Coming out of the recession, much of the focus for the state was on incentives for businesses to relocate or expand their jobs in Iowa. With so much of a need for increasing the workforce, is there any talk of creating incentive programs to attract individuals? Perhaps tax credits for out-of-state college students who stay for a certain number of years, or for working mothers who aren’t currently living here.

2. With a potential lack of entry-level workers coming into the workforce in the coming years, do you envision a situation where employers begin recruiting high school students to work at their businesses when they graduate? We know employers are getting more engaged with the school system, and potential trade workers specifically are already being targeted, but I’m thinking a bit about traditional roles for which you typically hire college graduates. Perhaps you hire the high school graduate and even help pay for their education as part of the arrangement. And if so, what potential pitfalls should businesses or students be aware of?

Can video games save the skilled trades?

Kent Darr: Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend brought to mind the importance — "impact" might be a better word — in developing skills that come in handy in the skilled trades.

Her words struck a chord because we heard a similar reference from Brian Clark of Ryan Cos. US Inc. during a Business Record video roundtable. He said that during a bit of friendly competition among heavy equipment operators, the youngsters outmaneuvered some Gen Xers and beyond. Clark pointed out that skills acquired playing video games come in handy when at the controls of an excavator, for example.

Townsend said the state is working hard to attract high schoolers into the skilled trades, which are having trouble attracting workers.

“What’s great about what’s going on in Iowa is that so many career paths aren’t necessarily tied to a four-year program because we have so many kids who are interested in getting into the workplace faster and getting through their training a little bit faster,” she said.

At the recent Iowa Skilled Trades Association Build My Future jobs showcase at the State Fairgrounds, about 1,000 young people attended. They could learn about welding or pipefitting, operate some machinery, take a virtual reality tour of a data center, and just generally learn about “all the different things that go on in a trades job that they may be interested in doing. Some of them even had video games.”