Local business leaders, stakeholders and educators joined together Tuesday evening in Muscatine to discuss barriers to economic development — namely, access to workforce.

The Iowa Business Council hosted its second “Vision to Vitality” community forum at the Merrill Hotel and Conference Center in Muscatine, following the pilot forum in Boone. More than 70 community members attended the panel discussion, which was led by Gary Carlson of HNI Corp., Rich Dwyer of Kent Corp., Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce CEO Greg Jenkins and Muscatine Community School District Superintendent Jerry Riibe.

Executive Director Georgia Van Gundy said the non-partisan Iowa Business Council includes members representing 23 employers, including HNI, Kent, Hy-Vee, Casey’s General Stores and others. While the members are the state’s largest employers, they have a presence in all of Iowa’s 99 counties, she said, adding the vitality forums are a way to learn from more rural communities struggling with workforce growth.

“We thoughtfully didn’t pick Des Moines or Cedar Rapids, but chose communities where our members are and there are different struggles,” Van Gundy said. “And one of the big issues that keeps coming up is housing for the workforce, as well as housing for interns. How do we break down that barrier? We oftentimes hear transportation issues, or affordable childcare. From the business side, they’re not able to get the trained workforce they need.”

Carlson highlighted the issue of dozens of people commuting to Muscatine for work, rather than living in the city. He said one of the best solutions is to add more housing, from low income apartments to middle income single-family homes.

With the state’s unemployment rate at a rare low 2.6 percent, plus stagnant population growth, Van Gundy said Iowa businesses are struggling to fill jobs with skilled workers. And Muscatine has not been immune.

Benjamin McLean, CEO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems, said his industry has been especially hard hit, as truck driving jobs are increasingly harder to fill. Several Ruan trucks drive through Muscatine, carrying freight for HNI and other manufacturers.

“There are a lot of baby boomers retiring and not as many young people coming into the truck driving role, so we’re trying to do a lot as an industry to change that,” he said. “We see that challenge in a lot of areas. We see it in Des Moines and we see that in Muscatine.”

Van Gundy said the Iowa Business Council promotes policies and legislation to help address workforce issues, such as the Future Ready Iowa initiative to arm 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce with education or training beyond high school by 2025. And she also pointed to initiatives in Muscatine, such as Aligned Impact Muscatine, or AIM.

Riibe, with the school district, said AIM is a collaboration of community members, working to increase the number of students who graduate from high school and complete post-secondary education, as well as training opportunities for adults.

He said Muscatine Schools has a partnership with Muscatine Community College to offer college education and training academies, and has pushed for more students to earn college credits while in high school. But, his main concern was attracting students and adult learners to those programs, saying the schools have been “begging” for applicants.

The panel leaders agreed collaboration is needed to inform parents, students and potential employees about the educational programs and careers available in the state. They also added Muscatine has been working on improving its amenities, by reconstruction roads, adding trails and beautifying the riverfront, in an effort to attract more workers to live in the city.

Van Gundy said barriers and concerns brought up at the forums will be used to craft policies in the next year. The Iowa Business Council’s next “Vision to Vitality” community forum will be held in Le Mars next month.

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