Access to a highly skilled workforce remains a cornerstone of Iowa’s economic development strategy. Leading the charge are the state’s 15 community colleges, which link arms with business and industry to create degree and certificate programs and work-based learning opportunities to meet the needs of employers. Dual enrollment, internships and apprenticeships are just a few of the tools the state’s community colleges use to give students as young as high school a head start to successful careers in high-demand fields.
Great Community Colleges
“The state’s community colleges are the No. 1 provider of workforce development, education and training in the state,” says Emily Shields, executive director of Community Colleges for Iowa, an advocacy organization for the state’s 15 community colleges.
“That ranges from what you would traditionally understand to be two-year degree transfers to shorter-term programs through which students can earn certificates and credentials that allow them to go straight into a career,” Shields says.
Additionally, colleges work directly with employers to either train new employees they’re hiring or retrain and upskill their current workforce. Shields says the colleges work with businesses in their community to ensure students are learning the skills those employers need. Then they connect students to opportunities that can help them grow their careers where they live.
“We have staff in all 15 regions whose job it is to coordinate work-based learning experiences and really connect students both in K-12 and community colleges with the businesses in their area,” Shields says.
“That’s everything from job shadowing, site tours and career fairs to internships and apprenticeships.”
Earn & Learn
The state’s highly successful Registered Apprenticeship Program offers an earn-and-learn model that combines on-the-job training with related classroom instruction, providing an accessible path for Iowans to enter a variety of careers, not only in the traditional skilled trades, but also other fields, such as information technology, agriculture, education and health care.
Beginning in high school, students can earn both high school and college credits while gaining valuable employable skills.
“Iowa school districts and postsecondary institutions have increased work- based learning options for students because of growing recognition that it is essential to link what’s learned in the classroom to how things are done in the real world,” says Kristopher Byam, registered apprenticeship bureau chief for Iowa Workforce Development.
Students learn problem solving, collaboration and creativity, as well as the technical skills that prep them for specific jobs. Seth Harms, who teaches welding at West Delaware High School in Manchester, says apprenticeships make school more engaging for students because they are able to quickly apply what they learn.
“Apprenticeships give a firsthand experience to that student who may have an interest in an area but isn’t 100% sure that’s the career they want to pursue after graduation,” Harms says. “The companies are getting an individual that they can mold to exactly what they want and train them with the exact skills they need.”
Aaron Dunkel, a senior at West Delaware High School and one of Harms’ students, is in year two of an apprenticeship with local company Henderson Products.
“I’ve learned tons of skills throughout my apprenticeship. I’ve learned how to weld stainless and mild steel, read blueprints, how to build parts, how to set a welder and so many other small things I’ve picked up along the way,” Dunkel says. “The apprenticeship sets me up perfectly for a career in welding. I know Henderson would appreciate me working there after high school.”
A major advantage of apprenticeship programs is the lasting partnerships forged between the business community, schools and colleges, helping ensure a steady stream of highly skilled talent flowing into Iowa’s industries.
Through IowaWORKS, employers can opt into apprenticeships to recruit, train and retain young talent throughout the state.
Brian Leech, owner and general manager of Service Legends, an HVAC contractor in Des Moines, created an apprenticeship program for his company after statewide licensing requirements were enacted. He says the program has allowed him to train and hire workers who have exactly the skills he needs in a technician.
“I have a saying: Knowledge isn’t necessarily power; the execution of that knowledge is power. You have to be able to develop the skill that allows you to use that knowledge – whether it’s in the medical field or in HVAC or plumbing,” Leech says.
“The more you do something, the better you’re going to get at it and the higher value you bring to both the marketplace and your own household income.”
This story was developed for the 2023 ‘This is Iowa’ statewide guide published in partnership with Livability.