Historically low unemployment rates in Iowa, along with Dubuque and surrounding counties, has created challenges for employers to recruit a skilled workforce, while opening doors of opportunity for those seeking employment and training.

Nearly 40 percent of local employers report that they struggle to hire the employees necessary to grow their business. Despite this, our workforce is at an all-time high of 61,700. It is imperative that we continue to grow our workforce from within through skilled training, while continuing to recruit new job seekers to the market.

In 2012, Northeast Iowa Community College, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque and Greater Dubuque Development Corp.’s Dubuque Works initiative (funded by the City of Dubuque, Q Casino/Dubuque Racing Association and the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors) created Opportunity Dubuque.

The goal was to “upskill” under-employed and unemployed individuals through short-term training programs.

These programs train individuals to enter high-demand, well-paying, local careers or ladder into traditional education programs. Tuition often is free for qualifying students to participate through state and local funding since they are ineligible for traditional college financial aid.

To date, Opportunity Dubuque has trained 640 people in advanced manufacturing, health care, transportation, construction and other careers, with an employment rate of roughly 95 percent. While the partnership has helped to meet employers’ demand for talent in high-wage, high-demand careers, Opportunity Dubuque coaches, employed by NICC, also identified a significant barrier for students who want to enroll in training to advance their skills: Accessible and affordable child care.

Prospective students say consistently that the lack of child care options prevent them from participating in the training programs that will benefit our region’s employers, grow the economy and support their families. Employers report a similar problem: 30 percent of companies surveyed through Greater Dubuque Development’s HR Action program identified child care as a barrier for their workforce.

To address this challenge, Northeast Iowa Community College and partners launched the Opportunity Dubuque Child Care Pilot to provide child care assistance as a support to Opportunity Dubuque participants. Students who enroll in the programs can qualify for tuition assistance and no-cost child care services during their training, and even up to one year after full-time eligible employment through completion of an Opportunity Dubuque program.

The Marita Theisen Childcare Center at Steeple Square in Dubuque will host the child care while students are in training through Opportunity Dubuque. Parents will be able to choose their licensed or registered child care provider upon graduation and employment to continue receiving child care assistance. The Opportunity Dubuque Child Care Pilot will be offered for training in many industries, including health care, construction, transportation, information technology and advanced manufacturing.

Opportunity Dubuque combines career training with success coaching, pairing students with resources to troubleshoot barriers to successful graduation and employment from the time of intake until post-employment.

It also integrates an “earn-and-learn model” where students enhance their technical skills and earn income from employer sponsors at the same time as training.

Most of the programs can be completed in four months or less, and graduates qualify for employment or earn college credit to continue their education in a similar diploma or degree program at NICC.

By creating new child care options and identifying funding sources to support this initiative, we are removing a significant barrier for individuals who want to train for high-demand careers.

This opens a whole new market of workforce talent that will be better trained now and into the future. The expansion of the private-public sector Opportunity Dubuque partnership, and the child care assistance program, is the first workforce solution of its kind in Iowa.

Kristin Dietzel is vice president of workforce solutions for Greater Dubuque Development Corporation.

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