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DAVENPORT — Iowa has a talent gap, and the state is doubling down on apprenticeships and higher education to close it.

Dozens of area employers, policymakers and educators gathered Friday morning at Genesis Health System to discuss how businesses can better recruit and train middle- and high-skill workers. The summit was one of more than 30 held statewide this fall as part of Future Ready Iowa, an initiative that aims for 70% of the state population to receive post-high school education or training by 2025.

In the Davenport area, that means an additional 10,369 people will need to obtain a new credential or degree.

The state has more middle-skill jobs than middle-skill workers and more low-skill workers than low-skill jobs, explained Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development. “As technology advances and automation continues, the number of low-skill jobs will diminish.”

To close that gap, the state has launched a number of funded programs. The Iowa Employer Innovation Fund, funded at $1.2 million in fiscal year 2020, uses a state funding match with local investments on projects that meet workforce needs.

One of the grant’s first 13 recipients was the “Fueling the Future” pilot project at the Community Foundation of Greater Muscatine. A broad public-private partnership, the program provides an intensive six-week upskilling in welding and certified nursing assistants (CNAs) for a dozen people.

The second round of applications will close on Nov. 8. Grants range from $1,000 to $50,000.

Another program is the Last-Dollar Scholarship, funded at $13 million in fiscal year 2020, which supports post-secondary credentials up to an associate’s degree in high-demand occupations, like nursing, engineering, education and advanced manufacturing, among others.

For adults who have already earned at least half the credits required for a bachelor’s degree, the Future Ready Iowa Grant, funded at $1 million in fiscal year 2020 encourages Iowans to return to complete their degrees. The maximum award is $3,500 annually.

Iowa has one of the highest labor force-participation rates in the country, as well as the single highest high school graduation rate.

“We have more Iowans in the workforce than an at any point in our history,” Townsend said.

And yet businesses are having trouble finding workers. Over half of applicants lack skills needed for a job, according to a recent employer survey presented by Townsend. Just under half of employers said there’s a general lack of applications.

Registered apprenticeships, an employer-driven training program in which apprentices learn on the job and receive pay, is another way to close the jobs gap.

Some states have limited apprenticeships to traditional fields like the trades. But Iowa leaders encouraging a broad swathe of employers to consider implementing apprenticeship programs, from IT and hospitality to health care and manufacturing.

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Apprenticeships also benefit employers, said Martha Garcia-Tappa, business marketing specialist at IowaWORKS.

“Registered apprenticeship programs recruit, train and retain employees” who are able to start the apprenticeship with minimal or no formal education, Garcia-Tappa said.

The average ending salary of registered apprentices is $60,820, according to Garcia-Tappa. Lifetime earnings are about $300,000 more than their non-apprentice peers.

Retention rates are high, too. Nine months after the apprenticeship ends, more than 91% of apprentices have stuck around, Garcia-Tappa said.

The Quad-Cities have dozens of registered apprenticeship programs, including at big companies like Deere, schools such as Davenport Community School District and government bodies like the Rock Island Arsenal.

Iowa has some 760 registered apprenticeship programs. More new apprenticeship programs were created statewide in 2018 than Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Oregon combined, Townsend said.

The Iowa Apprenticeship Act offers $3 million annually in non-competitive grants to existing registered apprenticeship programs, while the Apprenticeship Development Fund offers up to $1 million in competitive grants to program sponsors or employers in high-demand occupations.

One sticking point is that the high-demand apprenticeship programs must meet a $14 wage threshold to qualify for the grant money, as required by the state. State Rep. Cindy Winckler (D-Davenport) decried the “Catch-22” in which some workers, such as childcare providers, don’t qualify because wages are low.

“I know childcare providers make between $8.50 and $10 an hour,” Winckler said. “They can make more at Target, Costco or Walmart than they can for childcare. We need more funding in the system.”

During a moderated discussion at the end of the summit, representatives from a number of public and private employers said that some of the biggest issues for hiring talent involved factors outside work, namely transportation, housing and childcare.

Townsend welcomed the feedback and disagreements.

“This is what Iowans do better than other states," Townsend said, "we collaborate.”

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