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Choosing Action: Guest article by Mark Nolte

July 02, 2018 at 8:27 AM

The Iowa City Area has long enjoyed a strong and stable economy.

Certainly, the University of Iowa has been one of the strongest economic engines in our state. There has been great diversity in our interstate commerce economy, with almost equal parts manufacturing (such as P&G, Oral B, Loparex, International Automotive Components); educational assessment (ACT, Pearson and many emerging firms like PearDeck and Higher Learning Technologies); medical technologies (Integrated DNA Technologies, VIDA Diagnostics); financial services (MediRevv, Mercer, Sedgwick CMS, General Dynamics); and Software Engineering (ISE, Siemens and numerous startup companies). This balance and consistency has created the ability for us to keep the retail, service, banking, healthcare and construction sectors in an almost perpetual boom state and given us one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, while still being the second fastest-growing county in the state.

We should be very proud of these achievements. What we cannot do, however, is become complacent. Many things are changing that we need to address as a business community:

1) Continued funding challenges for the University of Iowa will likely lead to more positions remaining unfilled, reductions in staffing and a much slower rate of construction and procurement from local firms.

2) P&G is moving forward with its relocation of the Hair Care and Body Wash lines to their new plant in West Virginia by 2020. ICAD, the Chamber, the City of Iowa City, Kirkwood, Iowa Workforce Development, the United Way and other partners will be working with the company to help each affected worker find new opportunities. This will also affect some of the suppliers in the area, and we are in regular conversations with them about what we can do to provide support.

3) While our area helped originate many educational assessments (most notably the ACT test), the world of testing is moving away from paper and pencil to more adaptive, software-based assessment models. This change could have a huge impact on ACT and Pearson as they require a different type of skill set to remain at the forefront of this evolution.

4) Misalignment of skills sets to what our employers are looking for. We continue to see a growing disparity between what the needs of our companies are (from software development to production skills) and what our students are focusing on. Therefore, more of our young people are leaving the area to find work. This is having an impact on existing companies’ ability to grow, our prospects for attracting new companies, and the retention of companies as experienced talent leaves for retirement.

Now is the time for us to pull together and address these challenges in new and creative ways. We have a tremendous amount of potential in so many areas if we can find the collective will to take an honest look at our area and make improvements. The most fundamental questions we can be asking are:

1) What more can we do to make our communities attractive to the people with the skills we need?

2) What more can we be doing to ensure that all members of our communities have the ability to gain the skills they need to be part of our economy?

Data from the United Way shows us that the success of our area is not reaching all families. If we have the courage to be the place that truly innovates how we approach education at all levels, we can change this. We can create and continue lasting prosperity that will make the Iowa City Area a model for the rest of the country. Now is our moment in history. Will we choose complacency or action?

ICAD, the Chamber and our partners will be sharing some big ideas in the coming months on what more we can do to drive innovation in education and a stronger entrepreneurial ecosystem, because we choose action. We hope we can count on our investors and members to join us, and support some new approaches to how we impact this place we all dearly love.