Reduced community college funding hurts Iowa’s future
Sioux City Journal
Opinion By Steve Warnstadt
Department of Workforce Development recently released a study showing that the start of a school year is marked with high hopes, expectations and sometimes a bit of trepidation. We are fortunate in our region to have such a high quality of education, from pre-school through K-12, community colleges, four-year institutions and the Tri-State Graduate Center.
While we are blessed to have many quality parents, students, teachers and administrators, one of our challenges is ensuring that opportunities remain for those who complete their education in the region.
Across the tri-state area, there are more college graduates than jobs requiring four-year degrees. Much of the need for the occupations requiring this level of education is being met by local institutions with missions of living the gospel – providing skilled professionals in areas such as education, social work and health care.
On the other hand, the greatest need in the state is in occupations requiring more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree. These “middle skill” occupations comprise roughly half of Iowa’s jobs, while only one-third of Iowans have the skills needed for these jobs.
Two-thirds of those likely to be working in 2025 are presently employed, meaning the need for training extends beyond those who aren’t yet in the workforce. The report states that, “private and public investment in our existing human resources will be needed to ensure the state’s continued economic competitiveness.”
Iowa’s community colleges play a major role in making that investment. There are strong relationships between businesses and every community college in the state. For example, Sabre Communications is creating several hundred new jobs in Sioux City, with Western Iowa Tech developing a uniquely tailored welding program for the nearly 200 people the company needs to have those skills.
Colleges across the state are meeting the diverse and rapidly changing needs of employers, large and small, especially in the renewable energy industry. From wind energy to boiler maintenance, energy-efficient construction to bio-fuels, community colleges are helping Iowa companies create and maintain jobs that can’t be exported.
Developing these skills is particularly important in Iowa, which has the fourth highest percentage of manufacturing employment in the country (and about one-third higher than Nebraska or South Dakota), and where manufacturing output was $23.1 billion in 2009, compared to $10 billion in Nebraska and $3 billion in South Dakota.
In many cases, these skilled workers start up their own companies. Adding only a few jobs at a time, they don’t draw attention from political leaders. Most importantly, their local ties make them vital players in enhancing quality of life in Iowa communities.
However, the ability to provide the trained workforce necessary is at risk. Funding of community colleges (or for that matter, the pre-schoolers and K-12 students eventually entering the workforce) is directly impacted by budget decisions. State funding for community colleges is less than it was four years ago while the cost of equipment and compensating qualified instructors is going up. The result is tuition 50 percent higher in Iowa than the national average, while average income is below the national average.
Last year, the Iowa House voted to freeze appropriations while eventually supporting funding near the Senate level. Supporters of creating a skilled workforce will lose a consistent advocate with the departure of Sen. Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg. Instead, we will have legislators who will boast of their votes to reduce spending in front of certain audiences, while extolling their support for increased spending with other audiences. Facilitating the economic partnerships that deliver the skilled workforce Iowa’s companies need will require leaders to be consistent in what they support.
A Sioux City resident, Steve Warnstadt is a coordinator at Western Iowa Tech Community College and a former Democratic state senator. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of one son and one daughter.Posted Aug. 28th, 2012 at 8:17 am by Senate Staff