Iowa Business Leaders Weigh in on the Importance of Business in Education

August 14, 2020 | Business in education Gigi Wood,

Leaders in Iowa’s manufacturing and construction sectors say business participation in education is vital to the state’s economy and future. With workforce shortages and skills gaps, finding the right workers for the job is a unique challenge. These leaders and industries are making it part of the mission and business strategy to participate in Iowa’s education system on several levels.

An essential collaboration

As businesses address the skills and strategic needs of their operations, many leaders say a partnership with schools is critical.

“Collaboration between business and education is necessary in order to prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to meet the needs of business,” said Fred Buie, president of Keystone Electrical Manufacturing in Des Moines. “Collaboration between business and education is essential for economic growth. A skilled and ready workforce enhances profitability of our existing businesses and is a key element in attracting new business.”

Buie serves on the Des Moines Area Community College board of directors and on the Engineering Advisory Board at Mississippi State University.

“At the college and university level, there are many advisory roles where businesses can participate,” he said. “In fact, many accreditation agencies require input from businesses in the development of curriculum and other aspects of the education process.”

Taking on such a role can also shape the future of education throughout the state.

“As a board member, I help to establish legislative priorities and advocate for funding for education,” Buie said. “Every business leader should get involved in our education system. There are many opportunities where you can help.”

Keystone Electrical has hosted college and high school interns, tours for elementary and middle school students, and externships, where high school teachers work in the company for the summer.

“Offering internships for students and externships for teachers is a great opportunity for involvement and one that is very rewarding for all,” Buie said. “I have seen curriculums redesigned as a result of input from businesses. Students learn practical applications of concepts taught in school and teachers gain a deeper understanding of the skills students need to be successful in a business environment.”

School partnerships have countless benefits, including allowing businesses to give input on curriculum and gaps in learning, said Mark Hanawalt, president of United Equipment Accessories in Waverly.

“It is important to let educators know the current needs for skills in the workplace,” he said. “In addition, businesses know and can anticipate the needs that will be required in their future workplace. The collaboration between business and education is vitally important. We both need each other.”

It’s also important for businesses to guide the education curriculum.

“Schools either ramp up, reinvent or eliminate curriculum based upon input from businesses along with many other sources,” Hanawalt said.

Closing the skills gap

One of the most important reasons for businesses to become involved in the education system is to help close the skills gap.

For Dave Zrostlik, president of Stellar Industries in Garner, education has been a commitment of time and energy. Among his many contributions, he has served on the North Iowa Area Community College Foundation Board for seven years.

“This knowledge of [skills gap] needs can only be discovered through a close working partnership between school administrators and local industry,” he said. “When my children were still in our school system, I ran for an opening on the Garner-Hayfield school board and was elected. I ended up staying on the school board for 15 years.”

During that time, he saw firsthand the benefits of participating in the education system as a business professional.

“Involvement in the educational system benefits the business professional and the educational institute. Our schools want to produce students that have the skills that are required by local industry,” he said.

While serving on the board, a whole-grade sharing program was created in partnership with the neighboring school district in Ventura. That move eventually led to the consolidation of the two districts into what is now the Garner-Hayfield-Ventura Community School District. In another instance, the industrial technology instructor spoke to the school board about a needed technology upgrade to the school’s CAD (computer-aided design) software.

“The decision was to go forward with an updated version of the product that had been used for years,” Zrostlik said. “But industry had changed to a different type of drafting software. We found that the software being used by local employers was actually less expensive for the school to purchase and it better prepared the student for mechanical design careers with local employers.”

Stellar Industries participates in National Manufacturing Day and provides tours of the company.

“It is important for business leaders to develop a relationship with administrators of their local schools. Once this partnership is developed, there are numerous activities that can be held throughout the year to bring industry and education closer together,” Zrostlik said. “Stellar Industries participates in National Manufacturing Day by hosting busloads of students from various local schools to tour our facility. Working together to host an open house for high school students and their parents is also a good way to show families the power of a good education and how it is applied in the everyday world of advanced manufacturing."

He said his company also benefits by sponsoring Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI) Business Horizons, a weeklong summer program for high school students. The program includes career experience, personal growth, leadership development and entrepreneurial competitions.

“This business summer camp teaches young people what it takes to build a business, interact with others and have fun doing so,” Zrostlik said. “Most importantly, the experience gained during Business Horizons shows young people that there are a lot of great companies in Iowa that offer competitive jobs. Business Horizons does a great job steering young adults to seek careers in business, and hopefully businesses in our state of Iowa.”

Stellar Industries’ involvement in education has helped recruit students to open positions at the company.

“Once students were trained on the same software that our engineers were using to design our products, we were able to bring in after-school high school students and summer help to assist in our design process,” Zrostlik said. “These temporary employees needed no training from our company as they already had received their training as part of their high school education.”

Walk the talk

More business leaders are actively participating in boards, committees and other efforts to partner with schools. Hanawalt serves on the Wartburg College Board of Regents and has previously served on the board of a parochial school his children attended. He also communicates with the local community college to find out what programs they’re offering and to give input on industry trends.

His company, UEA, started a program it calls UEA University, which encompasses all aspects of education and continuing education, from onboarding of new employees, safety and diversity training, to advanced degrees for employees in engineering and MBA programs.

“The intent is to encourage our employees to view life as a continual learning process,” Hanawalt said. “The investment in our staff leads to job satisfaction, career advancement and employee retention. It is simply the right thing to do.”

Mike Espeset, president of Story Construction, served for six years on the Ames Community School Board. Businesses need to be present and participate in the education system, he said.

“I think particularly from a board perspective, but also just in general, I think our society's better when we're all at the table,” he said. “We must be present and willing to participate. We bring a set of skills and experiences to the system that are useful in leading, thinking and connecting.”

Serving on school boards, volunteering and participating in the education system in other ways may seem too time-consuming to some. But Espeset looks at it differently.

“Very often businesspeople think they're too busy or are concerned that it's a thankless job or don't know if it matters,” he said. “Well, it matters. Having a business mindset and a business voice in the middle of our educational system is useful, as are all the other voices. But very, very often business is absent. And I think our education system suffers when that's the case.”

Companies can also participate in education by helping find people to serve on boards and committees, volunteering to speak to classes and fundraising for special projects and extracurricular activities, he suggested.

“There are a lot more subtle ways that corporations sponsor and donate to different school programming, all the way down to volunteering in classrooms,” Espeset said. “And, a lot of companies just simply make their employees available. They don't need to take PTO [paid time off].”

Younger workers may hesitate to volunteer for a board or committee because of a perceived lack of experience, but that simply isn’t a problem, he said.

“That's why boards and committees don't act in isolation,” Espeset said. “They can only act in total, in concert. It takes people who understand finance, people who understand facilities, people who understand workflows and systems, people who understand HR [human resources]. Almost nobody in business comes with an education credential to be on a school board. Citizen governors is what we are, and we need good thinkers, good whole-brain thinkers there. I think businesspeople represent a population of people that can be that.”

Moreover, serving on a school board can be incredibly rewarding, he stressed.

“Once I told people I was on a school board they almost, to a person would say, ‘Boy, you know, it's such a thankless job, I can't believe you would do that,’ ” he said. “My response was that it's much more thankful than thankless. Really, for every one piece of criticism or critique I would receive, I would receive 10 thank-you’s. So don't be discouraged if you feel at all called to get involved. Now's a great time to do it.”