Earn and learn at Northeast Iowa Community College
Jeremy Adams struggled to find stable, good-paying employment after years of working in restaurants as a cook. He wanted to change his career path but needed additional training and certifications – which seemed impossible since he had to continue earning a living.
But at Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC), Adams found a solution. He was accepted into an Earn and Learn program that allowed him to complete the dual construction certification program while also earning an entry-level salary that was comparable to his restaurant job wages.
“In the (dual construction) program I completed with Northeast Iowa Community College, I earned certifications in excavator, skid loader, forklift operator, OSHA safety and first aid,” Adams said. “HODGE hired me full-time, and I know the certifications helped me get the job.”
At HODGE, an integrated materials and logistics handling company, Adams has increased his hourly wage by over 37 percent compared to his job as a cook, and he attributes his success to the training he received at NICC.
"I needed an employer to give me a chance because the restaurant jobs weren't paying enough,” Adams said. “After I attended a job fair through NICC, I was hired at HODGE. I'm thinking about returning to the college to earn a Commercial Driver's License next December."
Through NICC’s Earn and Learn programs, a student can partner with an employer and earn an entry-level wage for the job they are training for. The student earns industry-certifications and thus, becomes a skilled asset for the employer.
“It’s like a test run of this job,” said Wendy Mihm-Herold, NICC's vice president of business and community solutions. “They’re getting paid like they would be if fully employed in that job. Once they get certified and build their skills, they are already used to the work. That’s a cool piece.”
NICC has partnered with businesses for educational opportunities for many years, but officially, their Earn and Learn programming began in 2020. Through grant opportunities, state innovation grants and partnerships with businesses and non-profit organizations, NICC has been able to serve around 130 students so far through Earn and Learn programs.
“We have Earn and Learn programs in CNA (certified nursing assistant), child care, customer construction, CNC (computer numerical control), welding, industrial maintenance, warehouse technician and assembly,” said Erin Powers-Daley, NICC’s executive director of community and student development. “For businesses, Earn and Learn programs allow them to hire the student knowing they are getting a quality candidate that they can invest time and training to build their workforce pipeline.”
Business connections are vital to the success of the Earn and Learn programs. Local business input helps determine what skills are needed for today’s workers and what items should be included in NICC's course curriculums.
“Being responsive and attentive to the changing needs of the workforce and our employers is a key piece to making sure Earn and Learn programs are providing students with the skills needed for in-demand jobs now and into the future,” Powers-Daley said. “Shared marketing efforts and close communication between team leads at the college and business is crucial to make sure the recruitment, training and retention is successful.”
John Gronen, a real estate developer and partner of NICC, said Earn and Learn partnerships not only help upskill individuals looking for new careers, but they also benefit the local community.
“The funding of vocational programming for economic vibrancy and poverty reduction is essential for communities and the citizens who live in them,” he said. “Through our innovative partnership with NICC, we are serving community members with barriers to employment through hands-on paid training in construction, cabinet making and necessary soft skills training. Through this collaborative effort we are meeting individual needs, addressing barriers and changing lives. The residual effect is a more vibrant community with skilled workers joining the workforce on a regular basis.”
Along with entry-level wages, students can also find other financial supports while attending courses through NICC. NICC, like all Iowa community colleges, offers the Gap Tuition Assistance program, which covers tuition for adults continuing their education in in-demand job areas, and PACE (Pathways for Academic Career and Employment), a program that provides supports and resources to help ensure success.
“Without these dollars, our training programs would not be an option for our students,” Powers-Daley said. “Covering the cost of tuition with our GAP dollars and supplies and supports with PACE to help the students reduce barriers while attending the programs is a major advantage that helps support them to be successful.”
In conjunction with these additional programs, NICC’s Earn and Learn model sets up their students for success. And Mihm-Herold firmly believes it can be replicated in other institutions.
“You have to get innovative and creative with your funding,” she said. “But it’s a win for both the students and employers.”