By Jen Daly / Guest Column

Where can we find employees? It’s a phrase our ICR Iowa team hears weekly from employers large and small throughout Iowa City-Cedar Rapids (ICR) region.

The strain on the pipeline is multi-faceted. We are fortunate to be one of the few Iowa regions that has seen population growth over the past decade, yet that growth cannot keep up with the needs of our employers. Unemployment is at an all-time low, at 1.5 percent in the Iowa City MSA, and 2.2 percent in the Cedar Rapids MSA. Most of the people in ICR seeking opportunities to work are already working.

We need a larger labor force — and growing our labor force isn’t the only challenge. Alignment is also critical. We had 45,965 unique new job postings in ICR between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. Of those postings, the most critical needs included truck drivers, sales representatives, registered nurses, software developers, accountants, industrial engineers, teachers, lab technicians and systems engineers. We need more people in our region pursuing high-de­mand careers so we can match employment demand with the right supply.

ICR Iowa, along with dozens of partners, has strategies underway to support both challenges.

To grow our labor force, we recently launched a campaign to reach out to individuals who would like to come (or come back) to ICR for the right employment opportunity. The ICR Talent Hub has attracted 74 candidates to date and we hope to grow that number to 500 by the end of 2019.

A new campaign designed by local marketing firm Sculpt should help us boost qualified appli­cants for immediate job openings in 2019 while also building a larger labor force more likely to remain in ICR long term.

We are also pursuing a strategy to grow our workforce by increasing the retention of college graduates. Over the past decade, we have typical­ly retained around 800 each year. To keep more of these young professionals in ICR, we want to increase the number of local internships offered and help those interns see an exciting future for themselves in our region.

This summer, ICR Iowa — in partnership with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, and lo­cal employers and colleges — will launch a re­gion-wide summer internship experience. Several events will bring college interns together to learn about the wide variety of employers in the region, our young professionals’ networks and the great social venues we have across our communities. Through this program, we hope to increase the number of college graduates who choose to ac­cept positions and stay in our region.

In addition to growing our labor force, talent alignment is critical to filling future workforce de­mands. We need more students selecting high-de­mand career pathways and graduating with work-ready skills.

ICR Future is a coalition of employers, edu­cators, and organizations working collectively to support our 32 school districts in these pursuits. The group formed in January 2018 and spent the past year confirming core strategies and launch­ing a new career-connected learning hub, ICRFu­ture.org. The coalition recently announced a cam­paign to work with area employers to generate 650 new job shadow and internship opportuni­ties for high school students by the end of 2020, and is working with ICAN to host a college and career exploration fair for all ICR high school sophomores and their families this spring.

Goals to increase computer science, prob­lem-based learning and essential (soft) skill development are also priorities.

While we believe these initiatives can help us meet some of the workforce challenges we face in our region, we know other strategies will need to be expanded or deployed to achieve success: Apprenticeship and earn-and-learn models de­signed to help individuals move to a higher level of employment without student debt, bootcamps for quick skill development in high-demand oc­cupations, and a willingness by employers to sup­port populations with barriers to employment by providing more specialized support and training.

Workforce development is what collective im­pact folks call a “wicked problem,” something not easily solved by one strategy nor by one organiza­tion, community or employer. Instead, it takes a collective effort where many resources can be lev­eraged and aligned to really make a difference. At ICR Iowa, we feel fortunate to be a part of a much bigger team.

If your organization or employer would like to join any of these initiatives, send me a note at jdaly@icriowa.org. Everyone has an invitation to participate and an important role to play.

Jen Daly is president and CEO of ICR Iowa, a nonprofit joint venture of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the Iowa City Area Development Group.