The American Welding Society predicts the nation will have a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2024. In Iowa, more than 58 percent of health care facilities reported a shortage of qualified applicants for nursing positions according to a 2020 workforce demand survey by Iowa Workforce Development and the Iowa Board of Nursing.
Career changes are complicated and too often are never pursued because of built-in obstacles. For many professions, certificates or degrees are needed to prove proficiency in a craft. Starting over requires establishing a new professional network, which can be daunting. And above all, pursuing a career change costs money, often the first and most obvious non-starter of them all.
The Story County Retraining Program eliminates those barriers and is free to all residents in Story County who are 18 years or older and have obtained a diploma or GED. It is a partnership between Story County, the Ames Chamber of Commerce, and the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), who hosts the classes at their Ames and Boone campuses.
“There is a growing need for trained and skilled workers in Story County,” said Latifah Faisal, Chair of the Story County Board of Supervisors. “It removes some of the barriers that can lock people into a job with little opportunity for professional growth or increased income potential.”
This free Retraining Program provides an opportunity to master new skills and technology that can lead to a new career in a very short amount of time. The program is currently available in ten different career tracks, with the most popular being the welding and certified nursing assistant (CNA) tracks.
The idea of the program began in 2020 as a result of the Future Ready Iowa Grant program, but fundamentally evolved in Story County when the Story County Board of Supervisors approved the program and assigned the operations to the Ames Chamber of Commerce. It was a strategy that was utilized in the wake of the pandemic when employment for many people was impacted.
Nikki Fischer, Director of Workforce Development for the Ames Chamber of Commerce, oversees the program. “The underlying theme of the Retraining Program is that it provides opportunities to learn a new skill, immediately have an opportunity for advanced employment, and to earn more money. And it’s completely free!”
The process to apply is simple: prospective students fill out the Workforce Training Academy application online. Afterward, DMACC representatives contact the applicant to provide more information. Tuition and books are all paid through the program. Additional benefits include transportation assistance through gas cards each week that a student attends classes. Childcare assistance is determined on a case-by-case basis, and a cash stipend helps fill in the financial gaps of this transition period. In all, $600 is given to each student who finishes the coursework and works in a job in Story County for 30 days.
“The goal is to take the barriers away and make it easy for people to advance or upscale their career,” said Fischer. The classes are 5-15 weeks long depending on the course.
The Retraining Program is focused on providing opportunities for individual career advancement, and it is exciting to see employers of Story County increasingly utilize the program.
A Mid-States Companies Case Study
Mid-States Companies is a leader in agricultural construction. Much of their 20+ year reputation is in providing a full range of design-to-build contracting services, notably for grain and feed storage construction. The company is multi-generational and family-owned with their roots in Nevada, Iowa, dating back to 1965. They are proud to call Nevada and Story County home and invest in not only the community, but their people as well.
Dustin Johns is a Production Manager at Mid-States Companies. As a supervisor, he has encouraged several people to participate in the Retraining Program and sees it as an opportunity for employees to further their career.
“Often times, we have employees come in at an entry-level position and absolutely love working at Mid-States because of the culture we have built,” said Johns. “They want to do more with our company and want to make more money. This is where we use the Retraining Program to help make that happen.” One of those people was James Stewart who completed the welding program in March 2022.
Stewart admits that he had no metals background when he started at Mid-States, but he had always been interested in learning a new skill. He started taking the evening classes and quickly realized that he had a natural ability to weld. He started in shipping at Mid-States, and today does welding full-time and hasn’t looked back. “It changed the way I look at things, not only for my career, but what Mid-States does.”
High on a wall on the production floor reads “Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard”. It’s a mantra that the company lives by, but it can also serve as a reminder of the seriousness of the products they are building.
Welding is a process where two pieces of metal are fused together by heat and pressure. At Mid-States, the quality of weld supports buildings and cat-walk structures that people walk on, sometimes 200 feet in the air. There is not a margin of error for producing a weak product.
Stewart notes that the program has helped him out financially (he now earns a higher wage in his new position), but that he is also more excited to come to work every day.
“We have to leverage the talent that we already have in the building,” says Johns. “We want to push people to grow, advance their career, and ultimately stay here at Mid-States. If we can support that through this program, we will continue to do that.”
Developing high-quality welders is a passion that Johns has not only at Mid-States Companies, but beyond. He learned on-the-job while employed at ALMACO, another Nevada-based manufacturing company, and today is a welding instructor at DMACC and teaches high school students at Nevada High School. He fully recognizes that not every student he works with will pursue welding as a career, but high school is a time of career exploration, and he loves sparking that interest in students.
The Retraining Program continues to be a viable strategy for Mid-States Companies. Never one to sit idle, Johns took coursework through the program this spring to get his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
Mary Greeley Medical Center
Like Mid-States Companies, Mary Greeley Medical Center (MGMC), is an organization that actively promotes the Retraining Program with staff and experiences a direct, positive result.
“We are always in need of qualified patient care techs,” said Tammy Stegman, Workforce Engagement Program Manager at MGMC. “This is a really good growth opportunity for employees, especially those who are currently working in a non-clinical setting but are interested in advancing their career in healthcare and within our organization.”
For Mary Greeley Medical Center, the certified nursing assistant (CNA) track is the most popular for their organization. They often see staff in other departments such as purchasing take advantage of this opportunity. “It sets them on the first step of a career path for advanced pay and promotion without the financial barriers attached with going back to school,” said Stegman.
Jacqueline Hollingshead, Learning and Development Manager at MGMC, also noted the impact from the patient care perspective. “Completion of the course provides our staff with skills to improve the quality of care and overall experience for our patients.”
From a workforce development standpoint, the Retraining Program continues to be an important strategy to build skilled employees. “This is a program that can grow our skilled labor force by removing barriers to opportunity and connecting people with the resources they can use to lift themselves into a better financial future,” said Board of Supervisors Latifah Faisal. “This is just one way we grow Story County strong.”
At the end of the program, the Ames Chamber of Commerce organizes meet and greet opportunities for graduates. Employers are able to talk with the students and at times extend job offers immediately. “Companies absolutely love this because they have access to potential employees who they know have gone through a program that has equipped them for the workforce,” said Nikki Fischer, Director of Workforce Development for the Ames Chamber of Commerce.
Since the beginning of the program, 51 individuals have utilized the program with the average age being 34. In all, 31 individuals have earned their CNA and 7 their welding certificate through the retraining program.
It is never too late to begin thinking about a new career and the Story County Retraining Program could be the best fit. It is free to all Story County resident who are 18 years or older and have obtained a diploma or GED.
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