Opinion: Iowa community colleges are bridges to STEM careers and prosperity

Rob Denson and Rachel Kerestes |

Des Moines Register

Iowa’s community colleges are showing great success in anticipating the skilled labor needs of local employers and creating innovative programs to meet them.

Negotiators in Washington have reportedly dropped the proposal to fund two years of community college education for all students from the Build Back Better plan, but that should not be seen as devaluing the community college experience. Indeed, Iowa’s community colleges provide pathways to fulfilling careers and prosperity.

Iowa’s 15 community colleges are, in fact, critical partners in fueling talent pipelines in high- demand fields including agriculture, health care, manufacturing, technology and many others, with two of those colleges serving as regional hubs for the Governor’s STEM Council. Short for science, technology, engineering and math, STEM fields are experiencing enormous growth.

Nationally, and in Iowa, not enough students are enrolling to meet the demand for the skilled talent needed by employers in high- demand jobs.

According to a recent study by a coalition of science and engineering organizations, the majority of Iowa’s employment (58%), labor output (71%) and gross domestic product (65%) are supported by STEM.

STEM-supported employment in Iowa generated $11 billion in state and local tax revenues in 2017 — making it the primary driver of tax revenue in the state. Interestingly, 63% of STEM jobs in Iowa are held by people who do not hold a bachelor’s degree. These are advanced manufacturing specialists, electricians, licensed practical nurses, computer and information security technicians, and soil and plant scientists, among others.

These great high- demand jobs can be attained with a one- or two-year degree from a community college. And, with the Governor’s Future Ready Iowa Last Dollar Scholarship, now funded by the Legislature at $23 million a year, training in more than 50 high- demand careers comes with no tuition cost, avoiding student loans. In addition to the degree programs, Iowa’s community colleges support and educate high school graduates who can earn certificates in any number of skilled trades. Older, established workers too can sharpen existing skills or develop new ones to keep pace in a changing work environment.

Leaders in government, education and business are working quickly to fill the STEM skills gap as demand for skilled labor is increasing rapidly.

Across the state exciting programs that include innovative employers and education professionals are creating springboards to enter job sectors in such high- demand fields as computer science, health care and advanced manufacturing where skilled labor is desperately needed. Many were the subject of a recent online forum focused on STEM workforce development in Iowa.

In the meantime, the Iowa Department of Education is tracking the outcomes of workforce development programs for students across the community college system. Students who earn a certificate or two-year degree in computer and information technologies are earning median salaries above $ 50,000 a year out of school, while those in engineering fields like robotics can earn upward of $70,000 annually.

For employees looking to upskill in their current jobs, noncredit training at Iowa community colleges can more than double their income depending on their field of work.

Iowa’s community colleges are showing great success in anticipating the skilled labor needs of local employers and creating innovative programs to meet them. Surely, they will continue to provide pathways to prosperity. No matter what Washington does.

Editor’s Note: This article was authored by Rob Denson and Rachel Kerestes and was published in the Des Moines Register on November 26, 2021. A link to the published article can be found here. Rob Denson is the president of the Des Moines Area Community College. Rachel Kerestes is executive director of Science is US, a national coalition of science and engineering organizations.

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