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News Analysis: October 15, 2007

posted on October 15, 2007 at 1:01 PM

Other sectors of the economy demand our attention as well tonight, and to help us address those matters, Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio news joins us.

Mundt: You've been following the story even today, and that has to do with concerns about Iowa's work force.

Beck: That's right. There's a legislative study committee that's been assembled to study the skilled work force shortage over the next decade. A month ago they had some representatives in from Rockwell Collins and Deere and Company about how many workers they expect to be short over the next decade, 25 to 30 percent. And, you know, we have a declining population, declining birth rates, declining graduation rates, all a big concern. The biggest stumbling block is engineers. They're not going to have enough engineers.

So then they had another group come in today. One of them included University of Northern Iowa President Benjamin Allen who said that the problem is compounded by the fact that they are short math and science teachers. Just last year they were short 173 science teachers across the state; they were short 121 math teachers.

There aren't enough teachers training the next generation of engineers, so this is a difficulty they're looking at. UNI and the other two public universities want $5.5 million to start a math and science institute to recruit new teachers. If they have new teachers, they think that they can then recruit more people into the math and science fields. They want the get the ball rolling to recruit the teachers to train the next generation of engineers.

Mundt: But as I think you’ve intimated, this is a layer upon layer kind of situation here. This $5.5 million proposal is probably just the first of several that we'll be seeing.

Beck: It is. Even the gentleman from Rockwell Collins and Deere & Company say it's not just at the Regents universities, but also at the community colleges. The community colleges play a large role in training those welders and people that do skilled work. To work on the manufacturing line is not just a job that you walk out of high school and are qualified to do anymore. These are skilled jobs, and you need higher education for that, vocational training.

They're really saying to the state, put more money into both of those areas, because we're not going to be able to have the work force without it. But as you know, the state is facing not necessarily a budget crunch, but they've sort of over-promised, and they've asked most of the layers of government to have a status quo budget next year. So whether there's going to be more money for community colleges and higher education is yet to be seen.

Mundt: There's this other issue, too, of student tuition and the kind of debt loads that students are coming out with. I think that doesn't necessarily mean "I won't go to college" -- although it does prevent some from going -- but it may have an impact on the kind of education that I choose. In engineering degrees, we're talking about a hefty expense to get those.

Beck: There is, and when you they look at a shortage of math and science teachers, here's what happens. They get out, they might go into that profession, but Ben Allen used the term -- we're “hemorrhaging” math and science teachers. After the first five years on the job, they lose half of them because they understand they can go make more in the private sector. If they have a large student debt, it is going to be even more enticing to leave that profession to go into private practice.

Mundt: This committee is going to continue meeting over the next few months?

Beck: They'll meet in the interim and the legislation comes back into session in January and their goal is to have recommendations by then. So they'll meet a couple of more times before then. They'll hear from all of these groups that will tell of these dire warnings and predictions and say money is the answer.

Mundt: And yet, as you said, money is also the issue coming up in this session looking at a budget.

Beck: It is. It is because they put a large investment into pre-K, into early elementary, and early childhood education, and the commitment is there to continue with that for the next couple of years and raise teacher salaries, which is good if you're a math and science teacher because those salaries need to go up to keep them in that profession but that means the rest of state government's budget has to stay the same.

Mundt: We'll be following this story. Jeneane, thank you very much.

Beck: Thank you.

Mundt: Jeneane Beck of Iowa Public Radio news.

Tags: industry Iowa news