DES MOINES — When she steps to the speaker’s podium next week in the Iowa House to deliver her first Condition of the State address, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will spend much of her time talking about ways to boost the credentials of Iowa workers without post-high school education or training.
Helping workers improve their skills will be a top priority of her administration in 2018.
The 2018 session of the Legislature, which begins Monday, will be the first since Reynolds took over as governor this past year.
“Probably my top priority is workforce (and) taxes, but it’s workforce, workforce, workforce. Because that provides opportunities for Iowans. It provides an opportunity for a better quality of life,” Reynolds said.
Since a 2012 state report indicated Iowa does not have enough qualified workers to fill middle-skill jobs, Reynolds, former Gov. Terry Branstad before her, and state lawmakers have worked on myriad programs to
help workers obtain more education or training in order to obtain a higher-paying job.
The 2012 report, from the state workforce development department, said half of the jobs in Iowa require “middle skills,” but only a third of workers possess those skills.
Reynolds is pushing the state’s Future Ready Iowa program with the goal of 70 percent of the state’s workforce having post-high school education or training by 2025. Created in 2016 with a grant from the National Governors Association, the program promotes partnerships between educational institutions and businesses with middle-skill jobs.
Reynolds and legislative leaders said they regularly hear from employers that they have job openings but not enough skilled workers.
Reynolds hopes to include new funding for Future Ready Iowa in the state budget year that starts July 1. She did not specify how much she will propose, but suggested it will be in the millions of dollars. The new funding would help create grants and fund efforts to increase apprenticeships, foster public-private partnerships and more.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that I can do to get this economy growing again,” Reynolds said.
Economists at Iowa State University dispute there is a shortage of middle-skill workers in Iowa. According to their analysis, the job openings actually are the result of insufficient salaries.
“First, when employers say there’s a skills gap, what they’re often really saying is they can’t find workers willing to work for the pay they’re willing to pay,” ISU economist David Swenson said in a 2015 report. “If there was a skill shortage, people would be working longer hours and workers would be getting higher wages. Researchers have yet to find that evidence in several categories where people are arguing that there’s a skills gap.”
Still, the governor’s efforts have support among legislative leaders, both Republican and Democrat.
“One of the things that Iowans are asking for is the ability to help them move their skill set up to the next level, to be able to build their career and increase their earning capacity for themselves and their families,” said Janet Petersen, the Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate.
While there is bipartisan support for the ends, there are diverging opinions about the means.
Reynolds will do what she can as the state’s chief executive to promote Future Ready Iowa, and plans to introduce funding for the program.
Republicans in the Legislature may not have the stomach for new program funding in what is expected to be a tight budget year.
“It seems like there might be a unique opportunity to actually implement at least some of those recommendations (from Future Ready Iowa),” said Linda Upmeyer, the Republican House Speaker. “They don’t all look like they are high-dollar items, and I think some of those things we can take resources and change up a program a little bit and redeploy it in a little more focused fashion. I’m optimistic we can get something done with that.”
Petersen and Mark Smith, the Democratic leader in the House, said the focus should be on funding for community colleges.
Advocates who would like to see a pay increase for Iowa’s minimum-wage workers likely will be disappointed. GOP majority leaders say they are focused on creating opportunities for those middle-skill workers, not the minimum wage.
“What I hear is employers are paying far above the minimum wage now,” said Bill Dix, leader of the Senate Republicans.
Every state that borders Iowa, except Wisconsin, has in recent years increased its state minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour.
During the 2017 legislative session, Republicans passed a law that stopped Iowa counties from approving their own minimum wage increases.
“Politicians like to talk big about improving wages, but last year the Legislature literally voted to lower wages,” said Matt Sinovic of the progressive advocacy group Progress Iowa. “With Iowa’s low unemployment rate, the problem isn’t a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of good-paying jobs and the workers to fill them. Raising the minimum wage would make it easier to keep workers in Iowa and boost the local economy. It’s time for Gov. Reynolds and Republicans in the Legislature to not only talk the talk, but take action to raise wages.”
Reynolds said she , would be willing to entertain a minimum wage increase if legislators approve one.