All Sides of Workforce

February 14, 2020 | All sides of workforce

For those willing to look, almost every industry in Iowa has employment opportunities. That’s thanks to a 2.7% unemployment rate holding relatively steady the past few years. The workforce need is exacerbated in the trade and manufacturing industries, where there are well-paying careers all over the state.

Rob Denson is on the front line of Iowa’s workforce issue. He’s the president of Des Moines Area Community College, the state’s largest two-year and continuing education institution, and is often charged with training or retraining individuals to work in industries searching for quality employees.

DMACC is well connected to the business community and is constantly in tune with training needs. Many of the school’s programs are directly advised by business leaders, who often hire students after graduation. Educational institutions around the state are usually the first step in getting well-trained workers into the underserved industries.

“DMACC and community colleges are absolutely essential,” Denson said. “The biggest issue we have is that potential students, whether they are adults or coming right out of high school, really have not been well acquainted with a lot of the great occupations out there like the trades or manufacturing.

“We’ve got the training; we just need more bodies. Whether they are just coming out of high school or adults. There are a lot of adults out there who are under- employed. They are working hard, and they might be working a couple of jobs. If they would work with us, we would help them find a pathway to get a better job. And those jobs are sitting right there in the open.”

One of DMACC’s most successful initiatives has been its work-based learning programs, which take students and match them with employers on a part-time basis while they are in school or college. Both high school and college students at DMACC gain valuable experience while companies receive bright, dedicated individuals. The employer plays a role in training the student, who can potentially work for the company after graduation.

Denson said more than 50% of students end up working with the same company after graduation. As a sign of success, he pointed to DMACC’s Accumold Scholars program, which has been in existence for more than 10 years. The Ankeny-based micro-molding manufacturer hires more than 80% of its students through DMACC’s work-based learning track, Denson said.

Overall, about 52% of DMACC’s programs have some element of work-based learning, a sizable chunk for a large institution.

“[Work-based learning is] the perfect marriage of education and employers,” Denson said. “Students want a good job that pays a good wage and has good benefits. The companies that partner with DMACC pay well, and they’ve got good benefits. So this allows our students to get to know the company, and they can then come in as a full-time employee with a lot of experience.”

DMACC has provided work-based learning opportunities for more than a decade, but the program has been ramped up last fall because of Gov. Kim Reynold’s Future Ready Iowa initiative, which aims to train or retrain workers for high-demand industries. This past fall term alone, DMACC was allocated more than $1.2 million of the statewide $6.8 million funding pool on students pursuing careers in more than 50 high-demand occupations as part of the Future Ready Iowa Last-Dollar Scholarship Program. It’s been a great success.

For the future of the workforce, Denson predicts more employers will get involved at the high school and community college level. Students should become more focused on career tracks even before high school graduation, so the earlier employers can reach students and educate them on opportunities in their industry, the more interest they’ll build.

“I think that’s the clear trend,” Denson said. “Companies understand that they can’t stand around at the end of graduation and hope they can snag good employees. It’s too late. They need to be engaged and help students throughout their journey to work. Everyone wins.”


Karen Novak Swalwell deals with a different kind of workforce than the one we typically talk about. She’s the president of Francis & Associates, a Des Moines-based retained executive search firm that helps companies fill top-level executive positions.

While she doesn’t directly deal with staffing across all levels, she’s well aware of the struggles for Iowa companies. And the problems do creep their way to the top. “There are more open jobs in the state of Iowa than there are people eligible to work,” Novak Swalwell said. “So we’ve got a huge problem across the board. But at the senior level, it’s about supply and demand. It gets smaller at the top, so the pressures aren’t there as much. But we are still impacted by it. Because the markets are tight, it’s harder to get people to move anywhere.”

When it comes to recruiting employees for a top-level position, the game changes a bit. For one, most of the senior-level executives Novak Swalwell finds have to make a drastic move. That’s especially true when she works with Iowa manufacturers, of which a large number are based in rural areas. Compensation also becomes a large factor in the decision-making process, particularly when luring talent from the coasts. That doesn’t just include salary, but relocation costs, healthcare, retirement plans and other perks beyond dollars.

Because of the challenges in recruiting top talent to Iowa, Novak Swalwell and her firm targets individuals who grew up in Iowa but moved away at a later age. Those people seem more receptive to moving back to their home state.

“It’s really about quality of life,” Novak Swalwell said about her recruiting pitch. “The ability to be connected and have a sense of community is huge here. That doesn’t exist across the country. The Midwestern values are also shared among those who grew up here.”

Novak Swalwell has worked in the employment industry for more than three decades, and she’s seen plenty of change in recruitment methods. When she started in the early 1990s, having a fax machine to receive information in mere minutes was a big deal. Now, with computers and the internet, that timeframe has become miniscule.

Cellphones make communication easier, and websites like LinkedIn and Skype can connect her directly to ideal candidates. But even with the rise of technology, Novak Swalwell is still a huge proponent of networking. For every search she conducts, she touches base with people within her network in hopes of finding the right person.

“Networking is still the best way to find the next opportunity,” Novak Swalwell said.

Technology continues to change the recruiting industry. Artificial intelligence simplifies the process of sifting through a stack of resumes—for example, using keywords to filter out candidates—but Novak Swalwell is worried about losing the human element. After all, recruiting people is still about relationships.

“We’re dealing with humans, so I am concerned that some of the subtleties will get lost in screening people through AI,” she said. “There will always be a human element to hiring, but I’m curious how far technology will creep into things. There’s a lot of ways that it can be helpful in narrowing pools, and I know this is already impacting lower-level and higher-volume recruiters.”


Jim Roy wants to shift the narrative around workforce. As the regional vice president of QPS Employment Services, Roy and the company provide employment services to many ABI members. But instead of just recruiting employees, Roy wants the focus to be on retention and onboarding.

Because of record low unemployment rates, companies are working extra hard just to find workers. When they find quality talent, organizations need to implement creative ways to keep it. Manufacturers are hit particularly hard by low unemployment rates, and Roy believes they need to take a hard look at their onboarding procedures.

“At this point, everybody knows you have to work really hard to find talent and there’s a skills gap,” he said. “I’ve tried to shift the discussion with our companies that, yes, you need to recruit, but you need to make sure your onboarding is tight and organized. Because they are going to turn around and leave if you don’t embrace them into your culture quickly.”

The first 15 minutes are crucial, Roy said. Employees are often left with an impression in those all-important first few minutes, and it’s up to companies to leave a positive mark. Good examples include leaving a gift card for a favorite local restaurant, taking them out for coffee or fitting them with company gear. Given today’s tight employment landscape, that employee might have several other employers waiting to hire them.

Onboarding and culture are particularly important for millennials and Generation Z, both of which are known as the job-hopping generations. Roy said younger workers want to know what kind of impact their job has on the company. Organizations need to embrace that.

“You have to realize that’s what today’s workforce is looking for,” Roy said. “They have to have their strategy detailed, and they have to have it fully fleshed out to make sure that they meet the needs of today’s candidate. I see that as a big failure point.”

It’s not uncommon for Roy to work with a company for five weeks to bring in an employee. Then, on the first day, nobody knew that employee was starting, their workplace wasn’t cleaned or they are quickly shuffled away for training, devoid of any relationship-building. Those are pitfalls that can leave the employee feeling unwanted.

Roy encourages companies to clean up their onboarding strategy. Have a comprehensive plan for the first day, and build touch points throughout the first 90 workdays to solicit feedback from employees about their experiences. That will improve a company’s chances of retaining talent.

“That has to be top of mind in the world today,” Roy said. “Show them that you’re grateful they’ve joined your company, and establish what your culture looks like. I can’t tell everybody else how to recruit because it’s hard to find talent. But when you get that employee, you have to do everything not to lose them.”