BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Neither rain, nor sleet, nor freezing rain, nor sleet and slush stopped about 40 people from attending the Lee County Economic Development Group’s breakfast Thursday morning at Quality Inn and Suites.
Dennis Fraise, the senior economic development director and CEO of the group, said LCEDG is making strides in cutting into the workforce issues facing Lee County, but said it’s time to go bigger, faster and better.
“Now we’re at the point where we can put our foot on the gas and get some things done. We’ve have gotten some things done, but we have to be better,” he said.
He said the reality is that Lee County doesn’t have the workforce it needs to take us through the next decade.
“I don’t think that’s a surprise to any of you that are trying to hire people. So Bigger, Faster…Better,” Fraise said.
Fraise said the Governor’s Future Ready Iowa program talks about a goal to have 70% of Iowans having some form of formal training after high school to jumpstart the workforce in the next 10 years.
He said Lee County is 88th of 99 counties in that category with a percentage in the lower 20s, and the county also has the third highest generational poverty rate in the state. He said Bridges out of Poverty has raised the money to hire a part-time coordinator for the county and that program should up and running shortly.
“That’s taken a lot of work for those of us who’ve raised the money, but we’re there and that program will launch. We’ve had tons of volunteers, but couldn’t do anything until we had the money,” he said.
He said a recent survey showed that 40% of students in Lee County don’t have a plan for after high school. Fraise said that’s a problem, but also an opportunity.
Fraise said the county shouldn’t get bogged down in doing “stuff”, and not be afraid of pivoting from things that aren’t working.
Dana Millard, economic development project director at LCEDG, talked about the efforts aimed at students in the area and filling skills gaps needed by local employers now….not 10 years in the future.
She said 92% of Lee County schools have participated in the STEM scale up programs in the last four years. She that flows into how the county can go bigger, faster and better.
“When we started this program we were one of the lowest participating counties in the state and now we’re one of the highest,” Millard said.
She said more than 400 students in Lee County joined in exploring career paths through Career Exploration Day for high school and 8th grade students.
“When we talk to our high school principals if the students do it right, they can half a day or more for their juniors and senior years available to do things like career exploration, industrial maintenance programs, but that planning starts in eighth grade,” she said.
Fraise challenged those in attendance in a group setting to come up with hurdles that get in the way of a bigger, faster, better mentality.
Issues that surfaced included poor retention of graduates in the area, underserved areas of financial literacy, entertainment and quality of life issues, poor rental and housing inventory, awareness of paths from minimum wage to higher paying jobs, and roadblocks to career and technical education teacher certifications, regional collaboration, and preconceived notions of available companies and those jobs.
Fraise then asked the groups to come up with stretch goals for the county that address some of those issues.
A sampling of those ideas included flipping the the county’s ranking of Iowans with some form of education or training beyond high school from 88th of 99 counties to the top county in the state. Increasing the county population by 20% over the next five years, and creating a regional education/training center in three years.
Fraise said LCEDG would compile all the information from the session and forward to those in attendance to see what’s on the minds of the people that are going to help bigger, faster, better become a reality.