Building Bosses: Iowa Companies Drive Workforce Development, Advocacy

March 8, 2019 | Building bosses

Leadership development is the cornerstone of a strong and well-trained workforce. Having a robust leadership pipeline can boost an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency, and help ensure quality management for years to come.

Through high school programs, community colleges and mentorship, Iowa companies have made leadership development a primary focus in their business plans. And their reason isn’t just for the good for their organizations — it’s also for the good of Iowa.

“Having quality leadership development programs creates a pipeline for our state’s future leaders,” said Dave Zrostlik, president and CEO of Stellar Industries. “That’s not just a benefit to our communities, but also for businesses. It helps retain people in Iowa, and it’s critical to do that at a time when workforce is an important issue.”

The next manufacturing leaders

Mark Hanawalt wants to break a misconception about manufacturing — that companies don’t give their employees a chance to grow. The reality is quite the opposite. Many manufacturers, especially those in Iowa, are willing to invest in their people. Whether the investment be through new training, mentorship or formalized leadership classes, Hanawalt said you’d be hard pressed to find a company not willing to develop its employees.

“That’s sometimes not very well stipulated or espoused in the media,” said Hanawalt, president at United Equipment Accessories Inc. in Waverly. “Manufacturers are wholeheartedly willing to invest in people, especially those who are willing to work. I think that’s critical because a lot of manufacturers today offer a lot of upward mobility.

“I don’t know of anyone who won’t allow their employees to get into training to allow them to grow. That’s an overall philosophy here at United Equipment, and most manufacturers share that philosophy.”

On Oct. 30, 2018, United Equipment Accessories and two other manufacturing companies in Waverly — GMT Corp. and TDS Automation Inc. — organized the first-ever Manufacturing Night event to inform local students about the industry. Staff from the three companies gave informational talks to Waverly-Shell Rock High School students, highlighting processes, products and cultures. Debi Durham, the director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority, was also in attendance to welcome students. After the lecture, students attended half-hour tours of each company’s facility.

In the weeks after the event, Hanawalt, who planned the event, said feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did the night buck some stereotypes about manufacturing — that it’s dirty and monotonous — but it also helped open up the many possibilities for upward mobility.

“Our representatives were very, very good managers who are in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s,” Hanawalt said. “I wanted to get across to these students that this is a younger field, and there are people who are coming into this field on a regular basis. I also wanted to get across that we are willing to invest in you if you come to work for this company. We can get you the level of training to get you where you want to go.”

In its hometown of Garner, Stellar Industries has taken its own steps to make an impression on school-aged children. Every year for the past decade, the company has sent one or two local high school students to ABI’s Business Horizons program, which helps educate and inform future business leaders at the high school level. Business Horizons is a weeklong professional development course that helps students explore career opportunities and immerse themselves in a hands-on working environment.

“These programs give younger people especially strong reasons why a career in the state of Iowa is the thing to do,” Zrostlik said. “When we talk to the students who come back from the Business Horizons program, they said they had had no idea the opportunities that existed for them coming out of high school and how broad their future is. That’s critical to plant the seed for their career path and what they need to do to get there.”

Beyond the high school level, community and technical colleges around Iowa are integral to training and developing the future workforce. Fred Buie, president of Keystone Electrical Manufacturing Co. in Des Moines, sits on Des Moines Area Community College’s board of trustees. His role is to bring a real-world manufacturing perspective to the college’s fiscal and academic planning.

Iowa operates 15 community colleges, and each has become a valuable resource for companies in the area. Getting more high school students into technical training at community colleges can help them develop real-world management skills and mold them into future leaders. These institutions can also help current managers pick up new perspectives.

“The importance of these leadership development programs is to create a pipeline for the next generation of business leaders,” Buie said. “These programs also keep people abreast, and it’s a tool that develops new leaders and helps fine-tune the leadership skills of existing leaders.”

Mentoring women in STEM

Leadership development, particularly mentorship, can go a long way for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. That’s where Million Women Mentors fills a need. According to the organization’s statistics, about 1 in 4 workers in STEM fields is female. And just 3 percent of women who receive a STEM education stay in their career, said Jana Rieker, who co-chairs Million Women Mentors Iowa.

The organization’s goal is to connect mentors with girls and young women to create excitement and confidence around STEM. Since starting in 2015 with the backing of now-Gov. Kim Reynolds, Million Women Mentors Iowa has nearly 7,500 volunteer mentors on board. Its goal is to reach 10,000 by October 2020.

“Million Women Mentors is not trying to create anything new,” said Rieker, senior account manager at Trilix in Des Moines. “We just want to encourage women to apply for leadership jobs, welding jobs, financial advisory positions. We want to make sure the conversations around women in STEM are being had and that women have the support they need.”

Million Women Mentors Iowa primarily focuses on mentorship for elementary, college and professional girls and women. The organization has partnered with the Girl Scouts, the National High School Coaches Association, all four Division I women’s basketball teams in Iowa and community colleges to advocate for and educate women in STEM-related industries.

Just two years ago, Million Women Mentors Iowa and DMACC coordinated with local businesses and rolled out technology classes for women. Women in these fields were having trouble advancing upward because of family commitments, which held them back from night classes and certifications.

In addition to the crucial training women received in the courses, they also connected with women from other organizations who were in similar situations.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of identifying other people like them in these roles,” said Teri Vos, who also co-chairs Million Women Mentors Iowa and is the community relations manager with Vermeer. “It makes it an easier conversation and helps those women pursue their passions because they know there are other people like them out there.”

With mentorship and leadership development a primary focus for the organization, Million Women Mentors Iowa hopes to close the gap between men and women in STEM-related fields — and perhaps see more women in leadership roles.

“People feel like they are being fulfilled by that leadership, that growth, being leaders in their own right,” said Teri Vos, the other co-chair of Million Women Mentors Iowa. “Many young girls need that confidence, and that helps them stay in STEM and go for leadership positions.”

Companies focus on internal development

Manufacturing leaders throughout the state look at internal leadership development as crucial.

With an unemployment rate just less than 2.5 percent in Iowa, manufacturing companies are feeling the squeeze. In order to retain as many employees as possible, companies have focused on creating opportunities and developing their current workers.

“Training should be nonstop,” Zrostlik said. “It’s very important to identify those leaders early on, get them the training they need, and you’ll see those benefits, whether it be in our communities or within our companies.”

United Equipment Accessories uses the “80 percent rule.” This requires each manager within the organization to have someone in their direct reporting that is 80 percent comfortable with doing the manager’s job. The company leverages an internal mentoring system to ensure they have the people required in the case of an employee leaving.

This rule extends from the top all the way to the bottom — from the director level to the supervisory level.

“That way we aren’t in a bad way or positioned poorly because of it,” Hanawalt said. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just at the management level, and that it got down to the supervisory level and even the lead person of the floor. It goes all the way down to make sure we have the stock we need to continue operating.”

Stellar Industries uses an internal schooling program that teaches factory workers crucial skills to become better employees. The company’s weeklong welding school educates new welding hires and interested employees on the basics of the craft.

The course, taught by five full-time specialists, keys in on the science of welding. Participants spend three days in the classroom and two days in the lab. At the end, they receive a welding certification. While there are obvious benefits to the course, like a well-trained employee base, another plus has been the opportunity for new workers to learn more about the company culture and process.

“The class has proven very beneficial for us,” Zrostlik said. “In the process of doing that, we’ve found that the interaction with a new employee has allowed them to get more involved with how our company operates.”

Keystone Electrical Manufacturing Co. turns to one-on-one mentoring and formalized training to help some of its future leaders grow. While Buie admits it can be tough to promote because of low turnover in his management ranks, he usually guides his company’s brightest employees to DMACC. In those formalized classroom settings, individuals can network and connect with other people in similar situations. Keystone Electrical Manufacturing has also brought in DMACC instructors to the factory for supervisory skills training.

“There are those people who you see in day-to-day operations where you say there’s something different about this person,” Buie said. “For those who do get selected and make that move, we want to do formalized training. We also do a lot of personal coaching.”

However a company approaches its workforce development, it’s clear that many of them feel an obligation to their employees. Leadership training goes beyond initiative from an employee — it’s a mutually responsible process.

“If we have employees who are willing to do an honest day’s job, we will train them in whatever job skill they have or whatever position they want to learn,” Hanawalt said. “If an employee is doing this job today, but they’d really like to do this other job, it’s our job to help them get there.”