Hard-to-fill jobs? Get on your game plan
Community comes together to grow – and keep – talent
DUBUQUE – It’s one thing to grow and produce information technology (IT) talent to fill regional workforce needs. Retaining that talent is quite another, especially when employers from bordering states are eager to lure them away.
“We were educating students and producing information technology graduates, but they were getting scooped up and hired outside of the Greater Dubuque Area,” said Kristin Dietzel, vice president of workforce solutions at the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation.
Unlike larger metropolitan areas that can promote themselves as technology hubs, the IT opportunities in the Dubuque area are dispersed among a variety of industries — manufacturing, banking, professional business and health care, to name a few.
“We realized that we needed to find a way to show students the wide range of high-paying tech jobs right here in northeast Iowa,” Dietzel said.
The Dubuque area’s IT sector partnership was up to the task.
Sector partnerships are industry-driven, community-supported partnerships positioned to help local communities meet workforce demands. A partnership brings together regional employers, education, training, workforce and community-based organizations to address the local skill needs of a particular industry, in this case, IT. The goal is to build a strong talent pipeline for employment entry and career progression within specific occupational fields.
There are around 60 such partnerships throughout Iowa in varying stages of development across a multitude of industry sectors. Nearly one-third of these focus specifically on information technology.
Dubuque’s IT sector partnership was one of the first in the state, having formed in 2015 as part of the IHUM project, which is an acronym for Iowa’s Information Technology, Healthcare, Utilities, and Manufacturing. The project was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program to enhance education and career training programs that prepare students for employment in high-wage, high-skill occupations. When the grant expired, the advisory group remained intact to address emerging needs in information technology.
“Building stronger connections between business and education was an opportunity for us,” said Wendy Mihm-Herold, vice president of business and community solutions at Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC).
Realizing that most area employers didn’t know the IT faculty from area colleges, the group invited representatives from Northeast Iowa Community College, University of Dubuque, Loras College, Clarke University, Emmaus Bible College and the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, to participate and help develop an action plan for retaining talent. Together, they came up with four main goals:
- Improve communications between the business community and IT faculty at area colleges;
- Improve communications between the business community and students enrolled in postsecondary IT programs;
- Implement stronger IT pathways for high school students; and
- Develop training that employers need.
To help employers connect with faculty and ultimately establish relationships with college students, the group hosted a business and faculty networking event in 2017. The event was the impetus for faculty and employers to build stronger relationships, resulting in a better understanding of each other’s needs.
Continuing to build on those connections, this past February the group hosted the College IT Networking Fair. The group worked closely with faculty to ensure the event included a learning component for students. IBM hosted an agile training session in the morning for college students, while the afternoon was a more traditional career fair to connect with local employers. Around 80 local college and high school students attended the event.
“The keynote for the event was a Loras College graduate who now is the chief technology officer with a local financial services company,” Dietzel said. “That helped students see the possibilities available to them in the area. By networking and meeting employers during the fair, several students secured internships, too.”
Building a strong talent pipeline means reaching students earlier — before they get to college. A study by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a trade group for the IT industry, found that while the majority of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 like technology, it doesn’t often translate to a career choice.
To introduce students to IT earlier and help them see the wide-range of career opportunities with different skill sets, the group partnered with local school districts.
“We helped develop high school curriculum, assisted with development of a student-run help desk in the high school, provided IT awareness activities in our local high schools and are offering an increased number of work-based opportunities for students,” Mihm-Herold said.
Relying on support from the Northeast Iowa Career Learning Link, part of the Iowa Intermediary Network, the group offers class presentations, one-on-one college academic and career planning, workplace tours and job shadow experiences for high school students. The exposure often leads to internship opportunities.
“We had a high school student present to our group and one of our employer members was so impressed that they hired him as an intern,” Dietzel said. “That student has continued to work for the company while attending NICC. Now he plans to continue his education and earn a four-year degree, too.”
The group recently partnered with Dubuque Community Schools to develop and build stronger IT pathways for high school students. The new 2+2 career path, which will be available starting next fall, will provide students the opportunity to earn both a high school diploma and an associate degree in information technology. The business community is part of the curriculum development process to ensure that it aligns with employer needs.
For students who don’t complete the full associate degree program in high school, the state’s Future Ready Last Dollar Scholarship program provides a funding source to cover the remaining tuition and fees to complete the program at an Iowa community college.
The group’s last goal, to develop training that employers need, recognizes the constant change in the technology field and the need for businesses to help employees to stay current on new and emerging trends and innovations.
To help address this need, NICC developed a lunch-and-learn series for IT professionals in the region. The goal is to provide networking opportunities where professionals can learn from each other, identify common training needs across employers and promote the mindset of continuous learning.
“By addressing common needs, such as the fast pace of technological change in cybersecurity, we can take advantage of economies of scale,” Mihm-Herold said. “Employers can offer these professional development opportunities at a lower cost right here in our own backyard.”
Dietzel and Mihm-Herold stress that the results they are seeing did not happen overnight.
“It takes a lot of work to move a mountain,” Mihm-Herold said. “Our group has been meeting for over four years on this issue. You can’t get discouraged when you don’t see immediate results.”
Both agree that the work has been worth the effort.
“We have much better connections between education and industry, resulting in purposeful education for students,” Dietzel said. “And the successes we are seeing wouldn’t have happened without us all coming together, business and education, private and public, all for a common cause.”