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Iowa targeting ‘middle skills’ work force weakness in new report

Dave DeWitte, CR Gazette –

Iowa employers face a mounting shortage of workers with needed post-high school credentials shy of a bachelor’s degree, a new state report says.

About 50 percent of the jobs in Iowa’s labor markets are “middle skill” jobs but only 33 percent of Iowa’s work force is in the middle skill range, according to the report from Iowa Workforce Development.

Middle skill jobs are defined as those requiring an apprenticeship, associate degree, technical certification, or even in-depth employer-provided training.

Iowa doesn’t have enough middle-skill workers because the job categories requiring them have grown faster than the supply of workers with more than a high school education, the report said. That situation is likely to worsen, according to Iowa Workforce Development, as more baby boomers retire and the economic recovery gains strength.

Ron Dengler, owner of Batteries Plus on Blairs Ferry Road NE in Cedar Rapids has seen the middle skills gap firsthand.

Dengler’s staff has been trying for over six months without success to hire an outside sales specialist for the Cedar Rapids store, which recently added light bulbs to its wide assortment of specialized batteries.

Dengler said the job does not require a bachelor’s degree, although technical training in the electrical field or sales experience would help. Batteries Plus renewed online help wanted advertisements last week and received only three applicants for the position, which starts at $9 an hour during an initial training period, but could easily pay $35,000 or more per year once the hire is up to full speed.

“It’s difficult to find the personality. We’ve got the opportunity,” said Dengler, who is amazed at both the small number of applicants and the shortage of relevant skills among the applicants Batteries Plus has seen.

That Iowa is facing a midrange skills gap is not a surprise, Kirkwood Community College Vice President of Continuing Education and Training Services Kim Johnson said.

A skills assessment that Kirkwood provides job seekers has found that 66 percent of the unemployed or underemployed job seekers have no recognized educational or training credentials past high school.

“It’s becoming more evident as we’re beginning to see more of a tightening in the applicant pool,” Johnson said. “It could be because there’s been an uptick in the economy, or because people who have been unemployed for a long time are not looking.”

Simply increasing the number of Iowa high school graduates who obtain post-high school degrees and certifications won’t be enough to fill the skills gap, according to the Iowa Workforce Development report. It says the gap will require Iowa to find ways to upgrade more skills of mid-career and late-career workers so that they can qualify for jobs.

Johnson said helping more job-seekers to complete two-year degrees is one of the more promising avenues of addressing the mid-skills gap. That’s because about 24 percent of the high school graduates who took the skills assessment while they were looking for work had already taken some college classes.

Computer skills is one of the biggest areas of concern in the mid-skills area, Johnson said. When job-seekers were asked to rate their computer skills on the skills assessment, about 26 percent rated themselves near the bottom of a five-point scale on computer skills.

Iowa’s recovery in the manufacturing sector is one of the main areas driving demand for mid-skill workers, the report said. While manufacturing jobs once required little education, the report said changing job requirements in manufacturing increasingly mean a high school degree won’t be enough to qualify for jobs.

Mid-skill occupations expected to grow rapidly in the Corridor through 2018 include dental assistants, at an annual growth rate of 3.7 percent, fitness trainers and aerobics instructors, at an annual growth rate of 3.5 percent, compliance officers, at an annual growth rate of 3.4 percent, and medical assistants, at an annual growth rate of 3.4 percent.

The top occupational categories for growth are computer and mathematical occupations, community and social service occupations, and health care support occupations, according to the Iowa Workforce Development report.

Many of the occupations listed in the middle-skill occupations demand forecast do not pay as much as jobs with a four-year degree, but others do. They include sales representatives (2011 mean annual salary of $56,773) supervisors and managers of administrative support workers ($53,828) and electricians $52,922.

The report found a large worker surplus in the low-skilled job category within Iowa, and only a modest shortage in the high-skilled job category requiring a four-year degree.

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