By Adam Moore
adam@corridorbusiness.com

After months of flying under the radar, the latest initiative dedicated to helping Corridor companies retain new recruits to the area is set to lift off at the region’s semi-annual welcome event.

Called the ‘Wingman’ program, the grassroots concept aims to help connect newly transplanted workers and their families with like-minded individuals and groups in the Corridor, in an effort to counter a common criticism among newcomers that it can be difficult to build a new social network in the community. It also aims to help reduce the experience of a talented recruit leaving the area after only a few months or years, due to a feeling of isolation.

“I think the problem we’re solving for is we have people new to the area – recent graduates, people who have come to the area for a new job or opportunity –and we’re failing to connect them,” said Leighton Smith, director of client service with BerganKDV, and a lead organizer of the Wingman initiative. “It’s about harnessing the power of personal communications to get people engaged and ready to contribute.”

The concept revolves around developing a stable of “super connectors” – those who already have robust networks and knowledge of the region – and partnering with local employers and community groups to match them up one-on-one with new residents. The ‘wingmen,’ as the connectors are known, will then reach out to offer up an in-person meeting over coffee or lunch, introduce their match to other individuals with similar interests, and generally help them “find their tribe” within the Corridor, Mr. Smith said.

New residents will also be able to find wingmen, identified with a custom badge, on http://iccreatives.com, a free social networking site developed by Iowa City-based FullStack intended to connect creatives and professionals in the Corridor.

“This program aims to be an authentic way to welcome new people to the area through true human connection,” said Kate Moreland, director of collaboration and community relations with the ICAD Group and a lead organizer. “In our fast moving society I don’t think you can underestimate the power of being a region where connection is valued and part of our culture.”

The Wingman program grew out of CBJ’s Brain Drain Power Breakfast, held last August, which brought together workforce experts, workers and recent grads to discuss the region’s recruitment challenges. Although that event was focused specifically on keeping students in the state after graduation, around a dozen interested community members began meeting informally to see if there was anything that could be done to address retention more broadly.

Interested in doing more than simply creating another event or connection point, the conversations eventually narrowed to focus on the need for more personal guidance through what the Corridor has to offer. The program’s name, a tongue-in-cheek reference to both “Top Gun” and a trusted sidekick at the bar, aims to keep the concept approachable and light.

“This isn’t going to be targeted at everybody. There’s an subset of people who will say, ‘I’m not going to tell you my preferences, I can find that information in blogs,’ and that’s fine,” said Seth Wear, senior manager, talent acquisition with Rockwell Collins and an early Wingman. “This is for the portion of people who want that physical, face-to-face interaction.”

The potential market opportunity for the Wingman program is large. According to workforce experts among the group, the area draws an estimated 5,000-8,000 new hires from outside the region each year. If the group can touch 10 percent of that, “that’d be newsworthy,” Mr. Smith said during a recent meeting.

There’s plenty of work to do before that goal is reached, however. The group earlier this summer held an initial organizing event Baxa’s Sutliff Store & Tavern in Lisbon, which attracted about 30 people interested in becoming wingmen; the goal is to push the number of wingmen to 50, and arrange a couple hundred connections over the next year. The group plans to develop a ‘flight school’ program, meant to help provide resources and guidance to new wingmen, and work with local HR leaders to inform them of the program.

There are also still some outstanding questions to resolve, including how the program will scale as more wingmen join and employers request matches, and which regional organization will formally ‘own’ the initiative. Individuals representing other organizations such as the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, CreativeCorridor.co, the Iowa City Downtown District, the Gazette Company, the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, Kirkwood Community College and Frontier Co-op all participated in the program’s creation.

The program will officially launch Oct. 17 at the semi-annual Corridor Welcome Reception, to be held at Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery in Swisher. Organizers will meet with current and prospective wingmen before the networking event begins at 5 p.m., and formally introduce the program to the Corridor during opening remarks.

Locals interested in signing on as a wingman can email wingmaniacc@gmail.com, and create a profile at http://iccreatives.com. People looking for wingmen are invited to reach out directly to wingmen on IC Creatives, or visit creativecorridor.co for more information.

Disclosure: Editor Adam Moore has been involved with the Wingman Project in a communications and planning role since its founding.

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