Working together empowers an industry
Kristi Heisinger knows that a common goal can be a powerful thing. As the facilitator for the Northwest Iowa Manufacturing Sector Partnership, Heisinger has witnessed first-hand how area businesses have successfully worked together to address labor market needs.
“Manufacturers in the area were trying to get something going. They were in need of more employees,” she said. “Our sector partnership was a great way to come together and work on this as an industry instead of doing it individually. It has helped everyone rise.”
In a nutshell, sector partnerships are groups consisting of businesses within a specific industry and region. They convene to work and discuss shared interests and concerns about their industry and how to attract people from the workforce. They often collaborate with education, workforce and economic development and their local communities to develop strategies, increase awareness and promote their work opportunities.
“Sector partnerships are meant to have the employers in the driver’s seat because it puts them in charge,” said Joe Collins, education consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “They can accomplish more together. They can have the same conversation about common issues and in the meantime, save a lot of time, energy and resources.”
Currently, Iowa has around 40 sector partnerships covering 85 counties. These partnerships cover a wide variety of industries including advanced manufacturing, health care, agriculture and information technology.
For Northwest Iowa Manufacturing Sector Partnership, 22 businesses from Lyon, Osceola, Sioux, O’Brien and Cherokee counties have invested in working together as a group. The team has also partnered with Northwest Iowa Community College, Northwest Area Education Agency, Northwest Iowa Development and the Iowa Intermediary Network to link into educational and economic development opportunities. Heisinger came on board in 2018 and has been coordinating relationships within the community as well as initiating dedicated outreach to high school students to get them interested in manufacturing and work opportunities in the area.
To date, the partnership in northwest Iowa has been quite active in promoting the manufacturing industry to students. They have participated in career fairs, provided manufacturing tours and facilitated day field trips. The group has also provided manufacturing expos where they offered hands-on, interactive exhibits for students and, most recently, they have begun to expand into work-based learning initiatives.
“We recently received a Future Ready Iowa Summer Youth Internship grant and used it to place 25 area students, ages 14 to19, in local manufacturing businesses for internships,” Heisinger said. “The timing for the award was very tight. We wouldn’t have been able to place as many students without the sector partnership. Because it was established, we had businesses who were ready and excited to engage those students.”
Area students Rian Vasher and Logan Shelby both took advantage of the internship opportunities provided by Northwest Iowa Manufacturing Sector Partnership to further explore their individual career interests.
Vasher, 19, used her internship at RJ Thomas Manufacturing Company, a family-owned, park equipment manufacturing business in Cherokee, to gain more insight into what major to potentially pursue for her sophomore year at Iowa State University and to experience the many different facets of running a business.
“I wanted a little direction, a little experience to see what department I liked or had interest in,” she said. “I enjoy the manufacturing industry, but I especially like the business side of things.”
During her two-month internship at the company, Vasher discovered that she particularly enjoyed handling the company’s bills, outward money and accounting processes.
“I worked with the accountant and paid a lot of bills, and I really liked it,” Vasher said. “I enjoyed it more than I expected to. I wanted to see everything during my internship, but after I got into it, I liked the numbers.”
Because of her experience at RJ Thomas Manufacturing Company, Vasher is interested in working in an accounting firm after she completes her studies at Iowa State, and her ultimate dream job is to open her own business one day.
Similarly, 18-year-old Shelby also has big dreams for his potential career path in aerospace engineering. And his internship with Sekisui Aerospace, an aerospace manufacturing company with a branch in Orange City, was a spot-on match.
“I’ve always enjoyed rocketry, especially with everything going on right now – going back to the moon, going to Mars, entrepreneurs going to space,” Shelby said. “Most aerospace internships don’t happen until you’re a junior or senior in college, so this was beneficial for me to dip my toes in and learn more about the process.”
Shelby’s internship provided a hands-on work environment and, like Vasher, allowed him to experience different areas of the company.
“I was able to do a lot of things,” he said. “I cut and stacked sheets of carbon fiber, and I did several tests like load tests for medical equipment and non-destructive testing. I also got to make surfaces as aerodynamic as possible through painting, masking, sanding or applying putty. It was a lot of hands-on experience.”
Shelby will be able to use his internship experience as he enters as a freshman at Iowa State University this month.
Along with these internships, Northwest Iowa Manufacturing Sector Partnership is looking to expand their work-based learning opportunities and are preparing to venture into Registered Apprenticeships this fall, where students can train for an in-demand career and gain industry-recognized credentials while also earning wages. Heisinger and the group have worked to develop a high school Registered Apprenticeship for a career path in welding.
“With the sector partnership, the Registered Apprenticeship program came together quickly,” Heisinger said. “We’re already organized, so it’s helping us move forward.”
As a result of their efforts, feedback has been positive and the visibility of manufacturing careers in the area have increased.
“For us, the partnership has been about planting that seed for the long term,” said Dave Freese, human resources director at RJ Thomas Manufacturing Company. “It’s been helpful getting the message out about the varied opportunities we have and, of course, getting our name out there in a very competitive job environment. It’s very rewarding to see the interest grow at each event.”
Sector partnerships can help empower any industry to create relationships, open dialogue and help create awareness. Resources, peer support and technical assistance are readily available through the Iowa Department of Education, and new groups are encouraged to start meeting and work together to achieve common goals and break down shared barriers.
“Identify what is holding back your industry,” Heisinger said. “Get together and think outside of the box to see how you can overcome your obstacles together.”