To battle an aging work force, Corridor focuses on recruitment, retention

A better understanding of what the region has to offer is key, professional says

Published: March 16 2014 | 6:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:40 am in

In a lot of ways, Jennifer Germaine represents the employee that so many Corridor organizations and companies want to bring here.

She’s a young, skilled worker who grew up in the area but left after school.  She worked at an Omaha law firm for several years, but it never felt like home, she said.

Germaine relocated in Eastern Iowa a little more than two years ago to work at Day, Rettig and Peifer PC. She’s also the incoming chairwoman of Impact CR, the young professionals group that offers networking opportunities in an attempt to retain the area’s younger work force and serve as a resource to improve the Corridor’s quality of life.

“Baby boomers are retiring,” she said. “We need to make this place as attractive as possible to grow Cedar Rapids and the Corridor. It’s crucial.”

Iowa’s population has remained fairly flat over the past several years, increasing about 1.4 percent from 2010 to 2013, or from 3,046,857 to 3,090,416, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And although the University of Iowa is right in the Corridor's back yard, only about 50 percent of students opt to stay in the state after graduation, according to Angi McKie, the marketing director of UI's Pomerantz Career Center.

The state's challenge isn't so much that potential young employees have a negative opinion of Iowa. As DaLayne Williamson, Iowa City Area Development Group work force services director, puts it, they have no opinion of Iowa.

An aging work force

The rate of growth in the Corridor is projected to outpace the state, increasing about 4.9 percent by 2018 compared with the state’s 2.5 percent, according to Kirkwood Community College’s annual skills report, which measures employment trends and training needs. If recent trends continue, however, it won’t be the 24-to45-year-old demographic, the core of the work force, that is growing.

The report found that between 2002 and 2012, the number of 30- to 44-year-olds dropped by almost 4,000, or 4.4 percent. But those aged 45 to 64 increased more than 23,000, or 25.5 percent.

“We have a pretty critical work force situation right now,” said Kim Becicka, vice president of continuing education and training services at Kirkwood Community College.

To improve that situation, Becicka said the region needs to focus on three things — attraction, retention and improvement of the pipeline.

“We’re a great importer of people to the state for education and we’re a great exporter of skilled workers,” she said.

Kirkwood has partnered with employers and the University of Iowa to create accelerated programs, particularly in advanced manufacturing and information technology. It also helps place its students in Corridor companies.

But even still, the region is in need of engineers, call center workers, welders and other manufacturers.

“Often the appetite for the state doesn’t match up with the number of students the University of Iowa and Iowa State University has produced,” said Fred Streicher, director of marketing and communications for the University of Iowa’s college of engineering.

The college of engineering began working with the state’s employers about seven years ago when a John Deere manager was having difficulty filling a handful of positions.

Streicher uses the university’s alumni database to target potential candidates, finding graduates with the proper degree and experience to match the open position. Streicher then sends out an email to those candidates alerting them of a job opening and providing them with a link to apply.

The college is unable to measure how many candidates Streicher contacts actually apply for the jobs or how many are given job offers. But he said he receives about 50 to 100 emails a year from Iowa companies in need of workers.

Image problems

“There are stereotypes of pigs and corn here,” said Dee Baird, president and CEO of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. “People want mountains and oceans, and we don’t help ourselves in that respect.”

Baird said the Corridor needs to do a better job at helping people understand what it does offer – short commutes, affordable housing and a rising median income.

“We’re at pre-recession job growth numbers, meaning we have the same number of jobs in 2013 as in 2007,” she said “The downside, though, is our work force numbers are down almost 3,000 workers in the last three years. The baby boomers are retiring."

The Economic Alliance began a new recruitment campaign in January, partnering with Corridor Careers, owned by The Gazette Co., to launch its Job Rush website. The site has job listings, quality-of-life information and featured positions in advanced manufacturing, health care and customer service.

It’s also airing commercials in Iowa and in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as beefing up its attendance at job fairs with the aim of attracting younger workers to the area.

Baird said it will take several years before the region sees those numbers increase rather than decline, but pointed out 600 people already have applied for jobs through the portal.

Growing the candidate pool 

“Employers haven’t had much of a candidate pool at all — it’s been pretty shallow, and we want to help build it for them,” said Allison Antes, who is overseeing the $750,000, two-year campaign.

The economic development agency also plans to start a Stay Here campaign this fall, which will focus on recruiting students attending Iowa’s colleges and universities.

“It seems so simple, but a lot of them have never taken a look or considered staying,” Antes said.

Part of that campaign will be matching up a student with a young professional to show off the community and build a network.

This is especially important for engineering graduates, who have their pick of cities from Silicon Valley to Austin, Texas.

“The region isn’t so much a problem as the shortage for these workers all over the country,” ICAD's Williamson said.

“The employers here have great jobs. But they constantly say that when they talk to candidates about their perception of Iowa. It’s not that candidates have a negative perception, they have no perception. They’ve never thought about Iowa."

The economic development group has used multiple marketing campaigns over the years to change that perception, including its most recent — Iowa Brag. The campaign, which began at this year’s Outback Bowl, consists of tweets that boast about the Corridor and the state, whether that be through rankings or facts about Iowa employers.

“Our mission is to help companies grow,” Williamson said. “When they grow, others grow – there are more houses sold, more restaurants built, more money for nonprofits, there’s a bigger tax base and cities increase the money they spend on things.”

Young professionals network helps with work force retention  

A big piece of the work force puzzle is retaining young professionals. To do that, Germaine believes they need ways to build a community.

After she moved to Cedar Rapids from Omaha a little more than two years ago, she began looking for ways to connect with people and came across Impact CR. The young professionals networking group hosts social events and volunteer projects as well as educational workshops and speakers series.

"It's important to make those connections," she said. "I work lots of hours and it's easy to not get involved with the community."

Impact CR does not have a formal membership base, but Germaine said the group regularly attracts 60 to 100 people to its monthly social event.

The group also hosts the NextGen Summit each year, a full-day conference aimed at helping young professionals develop their skills and find additional opportunities to get involved with the community. The event, which hosted 325 people last year, takes place each fall, and is filled with breakout sessions and speakers.

Germaine said she attended a similar event while living in Omaha and thought it could benefit the Corridor. Giving students or young professionals who are new to the area information about what there is to do here can make a big difference, she said.

"Impact CR and groups like us, help educate others about what's available," Germaine said, even if that's suggesting a bar that has good live music.

"A strong young professionals community acts as a catalyst to continuing to attract and retain young talent to the workforce, engage them in the community ... and empower them to take on leadership roles in the community to make Cedar Rapids a place the younger generation wants to live," she said.

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