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Newton manufacturers give input to legislators about skilled worker shortage

owa State Sen. Dennis Black, Iowa State Rep. Dan Kelley and Newton Community Development Director Bryan Friedman listen as Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (second from left) speaks about the need to fill Iowa's "skilled worker gap."
owa State Sen. Dennis Black, Iowa State Rep. Dan Kelley and Newton Community Development Director Bryan Friedman listen as Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (second from left) speaks about the need to fill Iowa's "skilled worker gap."

Iowa ranks fifth out of the 50 states in manufacturing as a percentage of its gross domestic product. But, as more baby boomers prepare to retire and leave the workforce, Iowa’s strong manufacturing sector could be in danger.

“We have a skilled labor shortage,” Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal told a group of more than two dozen Newton manufacturing executives and community leaders during a town hall meeting Thursday afternoon at the Newton Development Corporation office.

“I’m sick of hearing about it. I want to know what we can do about it,” he added. “I want to see what the Legislature can do to expand the training available in Iowa, but I want to hear what those gaps are from you.”

DMACC Business Resources Director Kim Didier said most of those in attendance were manufacturing businesses that had already benefitted from the community college’s “260E” and “260F” job training programs that help qualified businesses offset the cost of training new and existing workers, respectively. DMACC President Rob Denson, who also was in attendance, said he hoped legislators would look at expanding the 260F program.

“Currently, there is a cap of $25,000 per qualified business, and the fund — which used to sit at about $10 million — is now funded at about $4 million,” he said. “I’d like to see the cap raised to $50,000 and the fund brought back to about $10 million.”

Denson also asked for the ability to levy more revenue to build more physical space for training programs. He said DMACC currently offers 150 programs, all of which are full and have waiting lists, despite some programs offering classes around the clock.

“We can only create so many students at a time,” he said. “Each class can only have about 16 students, based on accreditation and space constraints.”

Thombert Inc. president Dick Davidson said DMACC produces 16 employees per class, but the manufacturing section could use about 60. He said even his business, which he said is small in scale, is constrained by its ability — or lack thereof — to fill skilled positions.

Several manufacturing executives echoed those sentiments. More than half of those in attendance said they had current skilled openings they have been unable to fill with the current workforce.

Brad Woody of Ellison Technologies, which serves a number of the manufacturing companies in Iowa, said he sits on a Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics advisory board with Denson. He also sees the growing need for skilled workers in the manufacturing sector, which could become a “crisis” if not dealt with in the next few years.

He said parents need to be better educated about the quality jobs that exist in the manufacturing sector that pay well and don’t require a four-year college degree to attain.

“Despite all of the doom and gloom stories out there, American manufacturing is alive and well,” he said. “We just need to do a better job of educating parents that their kids can get a good job, a clean job, that pays well in manufacturing.”

Gronstal agreed, saying every parent aspires for his or her children to “be a rocket scientist of a brain surgeon,” but the reality is that not every student has the desire or attributes to do that. He said “society creates institutions based on its ideals,” which has created a disconnect when it comes to filling skilled labor positions.

State Sen. Dennis Black also attended the event. He said it is vital for the state to address the need for skilled workers.

“Skilled employees are vital to our state’s future,” he said. “If we fail at this, that is going to be our legacy to future generations.”

State Rep. Dan Kelley also attended the meeting. He said he sees the skilled worker shortage as a safety issue, noting that being safe is dependent upon an employee knowing what he or she is supposed to do.

“Technology is a part of every job today,” he said. “It’s vital that we make sure workers get the education necessary to find a skilled job, as well as the continuing education they need to stay up to date.”

Gronstal said his long-term vision for Iowa is to find enough funding to ensure the state has an education system that is “nimble and strategic,” and ready to respond to changes in the workforce.

“Within five years, I want Iowa to have the premier system to train employees you need, so that employers know they can come to Iowa and find the workers with the skills they need,” he said. “To do that, the system needs to be both nimble and strategic.”

Bob Eschliman can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 423 or via email at

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