BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Local economic development officials polled a group gathered around eggs and fruit and stuff, about what the next great idea is to move the county forward in the area of economics and workforce development.
The Lee County Economic Development Group hosted a “Talent for Today and Tomorrow” breakfast at Comfort Inn and Suites as part of the group’s breakfast series in engaging community leaders in discussions aimed at improving economic growth in Lee County.
Dennis Fraise, the group’s Chief Operating Officer, challenged those in attendance to look at two different focal points: a regional education center and the opportunities it provides, and, looking at what would help with the speed of economic growth.
“We talk a lot about manufacturing in Lee County. We have 4,000 jobs and that’s $250 million in wages, or about 25% of our jobs give or take. That’s well above the state average in terms of manufacturing jobs,” Fraise said.
“It used to drive me nuts when I would talk to people who say we can’t hire, but we have the highest unemployment.”
He said the situation could get worse with Baby Boomers retiring, and if the county doesn’t take action those numbers could drop to 3,000 jobs.
“If we don’t think that’s a possibility, we’re not paying close enough attention.”
One of the main topics of conversation focused on opening students’ eyes to the opportunities that exist here, and trying to find out why a good portion of our students don’t have a post-graduation plan.
“We’re finding that 40% to 60% of our students have no plan after high school,” he said. “A large chunk are coming out and they don’t know what they want to do. We have a lack of workplace skills. I’ve heard people can’t even read a tape measure. I found that sobering. Students and parents don’t know about Lee County manufacturing, they don’t know what that looks like.”
After a brief discussion at each table several ideas came to the forefront of the discussion including virtual tours of facilities that would provide an insight into the manufacturing facilities without having to open up the operation. Bill Helenthal of Hamilton and owner of the Daily Democrat, said his group thought creating videos of manufacturing facilities and getting those in front of students and parents might be away to help offset the high percentage of students who don’t know what they want to do.
“If it’s not parental driven or educator driven, students don’t know where to focus or what direction they are going in,” Helenthal said. “Who better than your parents and educators know what these skills are. You have to expose them to enough information about our needs of the county and what our employment is. In order to do that, you could expose them to virtual tours and show them in the classrooms, identify the students more with what’s available to them and let them know what percentage of positions are going to be available by the time they reach 18, 20, 25 years of age. You don’t have to go to junior college to go into the workforce if you know what you want to do and where you want to go.”
Other suggestions were to focus on some of the soft skills that students don’t have coming out of high school and overcome the disconnect between the students and what opportunities are available. Another disconnect exists between communities and the local manufacturers’ corporate structures, which in most cases are not in Lee County, and possibly using the Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce Industrial committee to help with that messaging. Also looking at a more tri-state regional approach to job banks and marketing of open positions.
Fraise said in the next 20 years 60% of all jobs will require some sort of certification beyond high school.
“We’re at 24% in Lee County. Employers can’t find qualified workers. We hear that all the time. So we’ve gotta find a way to go faster. We’re gonna continue our GROW Lee stuff, but we’ve got to impact more people and we’ve got to go faster. If we’re gonna move the needle, we’re going to have to do something bigger and bolder,” he said.
The joint, or regional education center as some are known, is where high schools come together and typically join with a community college. Resources are pooled to come together and build a stand-alone facility for traditional and non-traditional students.
“That means bringing the school district’s together and wrapping their arms around that. It means bringing SCC together and wrapping their arms around that. It means industries coming together and wrapping their arms around that.,” Fraise said.
Dana Millard, LCEDG’s Marketing and Communications Manager pointed out the steps LCEDG has taken as part of the group’s GROW Lee efforts including Manufacturing 101, 12-plus programs, a student Lego Robotics program, in addition to forming several initiatives, Future Lee, GROW Lee 2.0 and other events to move Lee County forward.
“It’s a tribute to all of you in this room as we move forward. Look how much we’ve accomplished. We’ve gone from 45 students involved in our programs to 1,703. What’s 2017 going to look like? I, for one, hope it’s way above 2016.”