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Stories About What's Working: On the Ground with Vice President Biden at Iowa's Community Colleges

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by Rob Denson

 
Rob Denson, President, Des Moines Area Community College

​Rob Denson, President, Des Moines Area Community College

I have dedicated my career to helping community college students prepare for and obtain good jobs, and on February 12, 2015 Vice President Joe Biden stopped by my school – the Des Moines Area Community College – to see first-hand our success.

Here in Iowa, there are good manufacturing jobs ready to be filled. Advanced manufacturing jobs offer attractive pay and benefits packages, but by 2018, there will be a shortage of 6,672 skilled workers in this sector of Iowa's economy.  According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average manufacturing worker made $77,060 annually several years ago, including pay and benefits, while the average worker in other industries earned $60,168.

But, we had two problems. First, there was a shortage of skilled workers in Iowa’s advanced manufacturing sector. And second, our state was in dire need of more training to provide Iowans with the skills they need to obtain one of those jobs and secure a spot in the American middle class.

So, with the help of a federal grant, all 15 community colleges in Iowa came together to create a new initiative to train and place workers in advanced manufacturing jobs: the Iowa Advanced Manufacturing Initiative. The community colleges purchased badly-needed training equipment, hired more instructors, and, most importantly, recruited more students into jobs desperately needed by area employers.

Because we know that students are only half the equation, as part of this initiative, the Des Moines Area Community College worked hard to cultivate important relationships with area businesses, and has created boards of business leaders to help guide our programs, training, and curriculum. The result is that our graduates are “business-ready," so they can make a contribution on their first day of work.

A specific example of this community college/business partnership that I’m particularly proud of is our Accumold Scholars program. An important area employer, Accumold worked with us to create scholarships and paid internships for students who go through our two-year advanced manufacturing program. In addition to an education, Accumold gave them on-the-job training and some income to help them with family and living expenses. Upon graduation, nearly 100 percent of these graduates are offered a position at the company. We have replicated this program with other employers as well.

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The results of all of these efforts were exactly what we intended. In two years, nearly 3,400 Iowans were served in the Iowa Advanced Manufacturing Initiative, with 1,972 students completing a grant-funded course of study in advanced manufacturing. More than 1,600 were employed after graduation and making more money than before their training.​

But behind these numbers are people who have very important stories to tell, and that’s exactly what Vice President Biden heard when took a tour of our Advanced Manufacturing Center, where he saw students turning random pieces of metal into useful tools or parts, and hosted a roundtable conversation. "There are so many opportunities here in the U.S.," Biden noted, "and I’m here to highlight what works. What you [at DMACC] are doing works.”

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Here are just a few of the stories of real students who show that these types of partnerships work:

  • ​One of our welding students was commuting more than 40 miles to get to class while working full-time cleaning hotel rooms. As he was nearing graduation three area manufacturers told him they would hire him.
  • Another student was struggling financially due to hardship at home. He had two children, one of whom suffered from a neurological disorder and was unable to be left alone. This caused the student and his wife to have to adjust their schedules so one parent could always be home with the child. The student was trying to go to school full-time and work part-time. After completing his studies in the program, he was offered a job, which he accepted. With additional certifications he has the opportunity to earn a six figure income.

Of course, as Vice President Biden pointed out during his visit to our school, we have a lot of work ahead. “Today, it’s all about training and placing workers," he said. "You [at Des Moines Area Community College] are doing as good a job as any college in the nation. The only vehicle that works for this effort is the community college. This is how we are going to grow the economy.”

Our efforts didn’t stop when the two-year federal grant ended. In fact, the project showed us there is great demand for training more skilled workers. The enduring legacy is that better equipment and new faculty are in place, and momentum from our efforts to inform potential students about our programs means our advanced manufacturing programs are still full.

In the end, the biggest lesson is that an investment in America’s community colleges is the fastest and best way to train American workers and keep them the most productive in the world.

Rob Denson is President of the Des Moines Area Community College.

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Vice President Biden makes remarks at Des Moines Area Community College
DMACC President, Rob Denson, recounts Vice President Biden's 2015 visit to the college with a focus on job
9/24/2017
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Stories About What's Working: On the Ground with Vice President Biden at Iowa's Community Colleges