Aligning a workforce with in-demand careers
Editor’s note: It’s been a long-time conundrum facing both potential employees and employers: Failing to align a workforce’s skills with good-paying, in-demand jobs. When the alignment doesn’t occur, would-be employees don’t reach their earnings potential, and plum jobs go unfilled.
That’s where sector partnerships in Iowa – encompassing education, economic and workforce development state agencies with targeted industry partners – are joining forces to strengthen Iowa’s talent pipeline.
In this question-and-answer with Jeremy Varner, division administrator for the Iowa Department of Education’s Division of Community Colleges and Workforce Preparation, Varner explains how industry-identified labor market needs are met.
Q: What are sector partnerships and what role will they play in strengthening Iowa’s talent pipeline?
A: Sector partnerships are regional, employer-driven consortiums that are highly responsive to industry demand. Comprised of businesses within a given industry sector (such as health care, advanced manufacturing, information technology, transportation) as well as education, workforce, economic development, community organizations, and others who play supportive roles, these partnerships focus on the specific workforce needs of key industries in the region. Sector partnerships operate within labor market regions and are not confined to municipal, county, educational, or even state boundaries.
Sector partnerships address the needs of both employers and workers while strengthening regional economic competitiveness. They focus on industry-specific workforce needs, reduce barriers to employment, create career pathways to high-quality jobs, and align education to workforce needs – thus, strengthening the talent pipeline.
Q: How would you describe the state of sector partnerships in Iowa today? What do you envision in the future?
A: Iowa has a great foundation with 45 existing sector partnerships across the state that formed after the enactment of the Pathways for Academic Career and Employment (PACE) Act. This state legislation established a funding source for community colleges to develop talent pipeline projects in coordination with the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Department of Education, Workforce Development, regional advisory boards, and community partners. Projects funded through PACE assist targeted populations with significant barriers to employment to acquire the education and skills necessary to secure gainful, quality employment. Moving forward, these existing collaboratives will form the basis for a robust statewide sector partnership initiative.
With that said, these partnerships are at varying levels of development and maturity. Going forward, we need to take this work to the next level, learn from best practices in-state and nationally, and develop common expectations.
Q: What support services will be available to existing and new sector partnerships?
A: Establishing effective and inclusive sector partnerships takes time, planning, and organization. With that in mind, the Department is planning a multitude of services to support sector partnerships efforts, including:
- Training a cadre of neutral sector partnership facilitators who have the expertise to support robust partnerships;
- Providing toolkits and resources for implementing and sustaining sector partnerships;
- Restructuring the existing sector partnership advisory council into a business-driven sector partnership leadership council which will provide strategic direction to the work;
- Adding a department staff person to support statewide implementation efforts;
- Establishing a common language and expectations for sector partnerships and career pathways; and
- Hiring a national expert (in partnership with Workforce Development, Iowa Central Community College, and the Technology Association of Iowa) to assist in the development of model sector partnerships with robust career pathways in the information technology fields.
Q: What role will Iowa’s Sector Partnership Leadership Council play in aligning education, workforce, and economic development efforts in Iowa?
A: The leadership council will be a business-driven, multi-agency, state-sponsored association that promotes a streamlined workforce talent pipeline, along with robust career pathways, that link the needs of employers with all Iowans. The council will provide the strategic direction for this work – identifying system-level needs, policy needs, training needs, and the like. The council may establish subcommittees to explore gaps such as sectors without existing partnerships, technical assistance needs, expectations for career pathway development, and other implementation needs.
The council is currently being formed with plans to convene for the first time this fall.
Q: How do sector partnerships fit in the implementation of recent legislation such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the redesign of secondary career and technical education (CTE) programs in the state, and the Governor’s Future Ready Iowa initiative?
A: The importance of this work is growing with the Future Ready Iowa initiative, launched last fall by Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Reynolds to strengthen Iowa’s talent pipeline, and the implementation of the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) which places a heavy emphasis on sector partnership implementation.
With Future Ready Iowa, the focus is on aligning the talent pipeline to prepare a more skilled workforce. The governor has set a goal of 70 percent of Iowans obtaining some postsecondary education or training by 2025 to meet projected demand. Sector partnerships are a key strategy to meeting this goal. By aligning regional talent pipelines, more effective career pathways will better prepare Iowa’s workforce and help close regional skills gaps.
The goal of WIOA is to prepare a workforce that meets business needs and helps Iowans secure high-quality jobs and careers. Iowa businesses are key WIOA partners and will inform and guide Iowa’s workforce system to ensure that the education, training, and services provided by all partners prepare a talent pipeline of skilled workers that meet industry needs. Sector partnerships will play an integral role to ensure the workforce system aligns with economic development efforts across the state. Sector partnerships will also help define career pathways for students and adults and assist educational institutions to adapt their offerings and programs to meet sector-specific needs.
Q: What do you see as the ideal scenario for sector partnerships in Iowa?
A: If we do this work right, we will see:
- Development of new sector partnerships;
- More partnerships reaching maturity;
- Higher levels of business engagement and more effective communication between business and support partners;
- Robust career pathways that work for students and employers to close Iowa’s skills gap, provide a talent pipeline of skilled labor to meet the needs of business and industry, increase economic growth, and grow family incomes; and
- Better aligned and more effective regional strategies to address needs within key industry sectors.
The workforce system needs to be more than the sum of its parts. The magic of sector partnerships happens when business leaders in a sector come together within their labor shed and pull together the local support partners to map out their career pathways, have meaningful conversations about issues, and set forth strategies to align the talent pipeline for the benefit of all Iowans.