Leaders Say Partnerships Critical to Address Workforce Needs in Linn County
By Diane Heldt, Reporter
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Nearly one in five working families in Linn County has an income below their basic-needs budgets, a University of Iowa researcher said Wednesday during an event aimed at discussing partnerships to build the area workforce.
Working families in the Cedar Rapids metro area need to earn from $15 to $24 per hour to meet their basic needs, things like food, housing, clothing, transportation and child care, said Lily French, director of field education and clinical assistant professor in the UI School of Social Work. But many jobs in the area don't meet that pay threshold, French said.
The estimated proportion of working families in Linn County with income below a basic needs budget is 18.7 percent; the statewide figure is 22.7 percent, she said, citing data from the Iowa Policy Project.
"We have to look very critically and very intentionally about the kind of wages in our communities," French said. "There is a significant disconnect between what is described as the needs of our community using that (poverty) standard and what our families actually have to earn."
Education and workforce development are the way for many families to make that leap, several speakers at the Wednesday event said.
Community, business and education leaders gathered at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids to discuss what their organizations can do to help bridge that gap through training, job creation and other programs. The Building Tomorrow's Workforce Today event was sponsored by Kirkwood, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and United Way of East Central Iowa.
Increased collaboration among the public and private sectors is key to meeting the demand for a skilled workforce, Kim Johnson, Kirkwood vice president of continuing education and training services, said. Workforce development, economic development and community development are all so closely entwined, she said.
"We are not going to be able to address this issue without partnering," she said.
Attendees heard about the success story in Dubuque, where IBM located an office and now employs 1,300 people with an annual payroll of $60 million, said Rick Dickinson, chief executive officer and president of the Greater Dubuque Development Corp.
Dickinson offered "a tale of two cities," though he was not talking about Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, but rather present-day Dubuque and the Dubuque of 30 years ago, when it was a city that had the highest unemployment in the country.
Citizens elected leaders to public boards, who in turn hired leaders to run the city, Dickinson said. Business retention and expansion became priority No. 1, with workforce solutions close behind, he said.
"IBM wasn't found by Dubuque," he said. "IBM found Dubuque, and that's how it usually works."
Cedar Rapids has a lot of pluses Dickinson said he wishes he had -- proximity to the interstate, the UI a short distance down the road and a critical mass of population. But workforce and economic development are not about envy, he said, but rather "about truly understanding what you have, what your product is."
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