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National Leader In Manufacturer Highlights Need For Workers, Immigration During Iowa Visit

The head of a U.S. manufacturing group highlighted the need for workers and immigration reform during a visit to Iowa.

Job retraining and immigration reform could help fill more positions in Iowa; those were some of the messages from the head of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Staffers with NAM made stops at Sukup Manufacturing, a grain bin and metal building company in Sheffield, and at the Kirkwood Community College campuses in Cedar Rapids and Coralville.

The group’s CEO, Jay Timmons, said he’s impressed with the efforts in the state to educate students early on and retrain workers throughout their careers. Timmons said that will make employees more competitive and better able to keep up with automation and evolving technologies.

“Retraining is a primary responsibility of any employer especially manufacturers who are taking advantage of new technologies, whether it’s robotics or automated or…augmented reality or artificial intelligence and other technologies,” he said.

Timmons and other staffers toured some of Kirkwood’s training labs at the Cedar Rapids campus, along with college President Lori Sundberg and other teachers and staff. Programs in industrial maintenance, electronics, advanced manufacturing, machining, welding and green energy were all on display, with faculty and students outlining some of their recent projects.

Many of the teachers say they’re seeing a tremendous demand for workers, at a time when some employers have more jobs than they have people. Andy Livin is a computer numeric controlled or CNC machining technology professor at Kirkwood.

“The job market is probably the best that I’ve ever seen. I’ve been teaching to close to 21 years now. It’s crazy,” Livin said. “We’ve got more jobs than we’ve got students.”

That’s spurred some students to leave Kirkwood programs for full-time employment after finishing only the first of a two year program, according to Dan Martin, dean of the industrial technologies program. But he says the college structures the curriculum so students are job ready after year one, and there are multiple ‘on and off ramps’ for students at various points in their careers.

“They’re going to work because someone’s paying 25 dollars an hour to come. That’s really hard to resist for an 18, 19 year old,” he said. “But they obtain the diploma before they go.”

During his visit to the state, Timmons also highlighted the importance of immigration, which he called a moral and economic imperative. In states with low unemployment economies like Iowa, he says more immigrant workers could help meet employers’ needs.

“When you think about the fact that we have 428,000 open jobs in manufacturing today, we could use the help,” he said.

Giving unauthorized workers a pathway to legal status could boost productivity overall and lift wages, Timmons said.

“That’s exactly why you want people to come out of the shadows. That’s exactly why you want to make sure that they can become part of the productive society, so that they’re not getting paid under the table," he said.  "If you have an employer that’s doing that, well frankly shame on that employer. That should never happen in this country.”

According to the trade group, manufacturing sector employs about 13.5 percent of the state’s population, and generates some $34 billion annually.