When I was a kid in Hampton, I belonged to a 4-H club, the Lake Stockmen of Franklin County. My brothers and I had cattle. To get us started, Dad sold us each a heifer. To pay for the heifers, Dad got our second calves. Beyond that, we had to finance anything we added to our herds.

I bought my first feeder calf, a “baby beef,” when I was in fifth grade. Not being an established rancher, I had to borrow the funds. Dad took me to the bank and pointed me toward a desk and a gentleman in a suit. As I grew older, I realized arrangements had been made and the deal was done, but the 11-year-old at the bank didn’t know that. I introduced myself. I was a little scared.

The banker asked me what I wanted to do, how much money I needed, how I was going to feed that calf, and how I was going to pay him back. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had been well-coached, and I was led down the path by a banker who knew how the deal was done. It was “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” some figures scrawled on a legal pad, a pep talk, a signature, a handshake and a thank-you. Dad came over, cosigned, said a word to the banker, and we were off. I remember the banker wishing me good luck and Dad shaking my hand with a proud, “Congratulations.”

I owned a feeder calf – my own baby beef. For the next year, the banker asked me how my venture was going every time he saw me. He was my partner. He had an active interest.

That next July, I showed my steer at the fair, it was sold, and I went to my banker to settle up. I had a savings account. The payment could have been made with an accounting transaction at the bank, but I recall withdrawing cash and taking it to the desk. I suspect Dad told me to do it that way. He would have wanted me to understand the magnitude of the event. I remember he didn’t go with me.

The whole experience was profound. It helped shape who I grew up to be. It helped build the confidence and focus necessary to walk into a strange room and make my case, to stand up for what I believed should and could be done, and to make a difference.

It is a hard experience to replicate today. My dad was an independent businessman – a farmer, a trucker and a livestock buyer. I saw business every day. I could walk across the road to Dad’s office in the stockyards. I could wander through the truck garage. Most of my friends could, and regularly did, walk into the environments where their parents worked.

These days, our kids go to day care while we work. Not many bankers can walk an 11-year- old through the commercial loan process. Children come out of high schools and into college with only a sketchy understanding of what their parents really do and how the working world really works. They spend extra time in school, build staggering college debts, and too often leave school bereft of the working skills businesses require. They never get to learn the game before they start making their own moves.

For the past few years, I have been a member of the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Workforce Attraction/Retention Council. One of the council’s efforts is helping businesses provide immersion experiences for students at the elementary, high school and college levels. We currently have a task force working to develop better ways of connecting area businesses with college internship opportunities. 

In addition to benefiting students, public-private educational relationships allow businesses to help shape future employees and connect educational programs with the changing needs of the business community. These partnerships improve the environment on both sides of the equation. I would encourage all business and educational leaders to expand these connections whenever they reasonably can.

We can’t lead every 11-year-old to a commercial banker, but we can do a lot more to bridge the gap between a formal education and an ever-changing world.

Mark Imerman, a director of business and institutional relations for Iowa State University, can be reached at imerman@iastate.edu.