You don’t have to spend much time on the campaign trail to figure out the economy is a big deal to Iowans. Candidates love to talk about “putting the state to work” and “getting back to work” as they roam the state.
And for good reason. The state’s unemployment rate is 3.1 percent, considerably lower than the national average of 4.4 percent, according to data released by Bureau of Labor Statistics in April. As a result of Iowa’s low unemployment many positions across the state remain unfilled, and some industries are experiencing a critical shortage of skilled labor. During a recent campaign stop in Newton, John Norris, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he’s heard from countless employers across the state that they’re having trouble finding qualified candidates.
Maybe it’s because many of those positions are in the trades, or skilled labor positions, which have long been shunned by Iowa’s high school students. For more than two decades we’ve heard a familiar mantra; go to college, and get a good job when you graduate.
College might not be the pathway to success that it once was however. In 2016, the average college student graduated with $37,172 in student loan debt, and studies have shown that more than half those students have no idea when, or even if they’ll be able to repay those loans. In an uncertain economy, there are options for students who are looking for an alternative to four years of college.
Changing attitudes about the trade industry will take time, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the winds are starting to shift. Mike Rowe was in Des Moines last week to speak at a fundraiser, and the former “Dirty Jobs” host has been a passionate advocate for restoring skills-based learning. In a Facebook post, Rowe marvelled at the classes available at Des Moines’ Central Campus, many of which offer college credit. Iowa has more than 3,000 openings for skilled labor, and without these classes, Rowe said he thinks it’ll be impossible to fill those positions.
“Des Moines is literally closing the skills gap with a workable model that all cities should follow, that’s news or at least it should be,” Rowe wrote on Facebook.
Rowe’s right, and Iowa schools need to increase the profile of careers in the skilled labor industry and abandon the idea that a four-year college degree is an essential ingredient to success. In Newton, high school ag teacher James Horn is working hard to show students that pathway. This month, he’ll take six students from his FFA program to the national FFA convention in Indianapolis, Ind. where they’ll be exposed to a variety of career options.
Talk to Horn for more than 5 minutes and you’ll quickly realize the FFA is about more than just farming. Students in Horn’s FFA classes are required to work on projects outside of the classroom, with an expectation they’ll be able to generate income. NHS Senior Logan Theis works at Park Centre in Newton, and after being exposed to welding classes at NHS, he’s planning on beginning an apprenticeship with the Local 33 plumbers and steamfitters union. Classes with Horn and other industrial technology teachers at NHS gave Theis the confidence to apply for the position.
“He teaches stuff that you’re going to use in real life, he prepares you,” Theis said in a recent interview.
Supporting students like Theis, and continuing to develop programs that will fill more good paying, blue collar jobs in the state is a goal that we should all work towards.
Contact David Dolmage