Iowa schools ‘can’t do it all;’ more business partnerships needed, education director says

Iowa Economic Development Authority Executive Director Debi Durham answers a question Wednesday during a panel with other state agency heads during the DEV 2022 conference at the Hyatt Regency Coralville Hotel and Conference Center. (Savannah Blake / The Gazette)

Iowa Department of Education Director Ann Lebo speaks Wednesday about the importance of education and how it directly impacts the economy while answering a question during a panel at the DEV 2022 conference at the Hyatt Regency Coralville Hotel and Conference Center. (Savannah Blake / The Gazette)

State agency heads – from left, Department of Education Director Ann Lebo, Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham and Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend – speak Wednesday during a panel at the DEV 2022 conference at the Hyatt Regency Coralville Hotel and Conference Center. The discussion was moderated by Kathryn Kunert of MidAmerican Energy. (Savannah Blake / The Gazette)

CORALVILLE – Iowa schools do a lot of things – teach students, provide food security, connect families to services – but when it comes to developing the workforce, local companies need to help out, said Ann Lebo, Iowa’s Department of Education director.

“I’ve seen more responsibilities added to schools each year. And nothing has fallen off their plate, ”Lebo told about 200 people gathered for DEV 2022, a statewide economic development conference held Wednesday in Coralville. “But they can’t do it all.”

Lebo joined Debi Durham, Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Finance Authority director, and Beth Townsend, Iowa Workforce Development director in a panel discussion led by Kathryn Kunert, vice president of economic connections and integration for MidAmerican Energy.

The panel followed remarks by Gov. Kim Reynolds, who highlighted changes and new programs she feels will spur economic development in the state. Among the changes was a new 3.9 percent flat income tax and a bill to reduce the amount of time Iowans can get unemployment benefits.

Reynolds also announced the state would spend $ 25 million of federal pandemic aid to encourage Iowa companies to invest in child care for their employees. “Working parents need to know their children will be well cared for,” she said.

The connection between children and the working adults they become was a theme in the panel discussion featuring three of Iowa’s top government agency heads.

“I can’t stress strongly enough how much we need business partners,” Townsend said. “That is the way we grow our future workforce. That is how we teach them (students) to work. That’s how we show them all the opportunities in their communities. ”

Companies need to offer more internships to high school and college students so young people see the jobs they could get if they stay in Iowa, she said.

Future Ready Iowa’s Summer Youth Internship Project provided $ 1.61 million in grants last year to 26 companies or organizations providing high school internships. These internships included landscaping, custom meat processing, nursing, utility management and engineering, among other disciplines.

That funding amount was cut to $ 250,000 this year.

“For the first time ever, we’re going to have a high school internship,” Kunert said of MidAmerican, based in Des Moines.

Townsend said if she had her way, she’d switch all K-12 and higher education institutions to a competency-based system where students move up when they mastered the skills, not on an arbitrary timeline like a school year.

“If we could move to a more competency-based education, we could get people through the system faster with the skills they really want to have,” she said.

Many manufacturing companies in Iowa would like high school students to get more vocational training, but some small schools have eliminated the programs, an audience member said after the panel.

Lebo said training can be offered more efficiently to students from several high schools in a central location, often at a company that can provide an employee to teach. But transportation is a problem, another audience member said.

“If you need a van or ride-share, the local employers can put some skin in the game,” Lebo said. “When you have those challenges, find a partner.”

Durham said the pandemic proved remote work can be productive and satisfying.

“Remote work for rural Iowa is a great equalizer,” she said, adding that people can live in their hometowns while working for larger firms elsewhere. “People are now finding their way back to their place of happiness.”

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