The Ottumwa Courier

December 9, 2013

Partnership could boost economy

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Seeing a vibrant economy here is going to take a team; and while that team may or may not contain certain members, it must have the community’s high school.

That was the message from Tom Rubel at Monday's meeting of the Ottumwa school board. Rubel is the executive dean of the Indian Hills Regional Economic Advancement program. His department is tasked with getting people together to help in creating a strong southeast Iowa economy. He was not giving the board members all new information, but he was bringing it all together; to do that right, it's going to take cooperation between stakeholders like public schools, four-year colleges, community colleges, specialty schools and businesses.

To begin, he explained, “In order to have a stable economy, you need to have a workforce.”

It’s not the only thing you need to have, he acknowledged, but it is a portion of the formula that it’d be dangerous to forget.

“We need to have economic development, and you can’t talk about economic development without small business. Or without big business,” Rubel acknowledged. “But they need a [skilled] workforce.”

That includes expanding a business, bringing in new business or even staying in business.

“You need a workforce, and for that, we need to talk about education.”

The conversation adults should be having with young people is, Rubel believes, is “what do you want to do with your life? And where do you go to get the training to do that?”

With the right questions, we get them into a technical program, or a four-year college, or a job-training program.

Rubel’s fellow IHCC representative, Karen Swanson, said that’s how students get into the right career path for them, and one that will have jobs available. It’s too easy to get into debt, she said, as a student who winds up without a job that will help pay back their college debt.

“We’ve made the mistake with too many of our young people, and I do get criticism for saying this,” said Rubel, “but when they graduate high school, we tell them all to scurry on up to … a four year college.”

He has nothing against four-year colleges, he said. His children just graduated from one, and he went that route. Many people have successfully done so.

But there are opportunities for students who don’t want to follow that “traditional” path. Just remember, Rubel and Swanson both stressed, that a good paying job will require some sort of education beyond high school. Students at OHS are able to get a start on those skills. Swanson is director of high school programs for IHCC, where she connects with both K-12, and industry.

“There are OHS students who could walk across the stage at high school graduation with their diploma and a welding certificate from IHCC; at 18, they’re employable.”

Nearly every graduate of the welding program receives a job offer, added Rubel.

Doug Mathias, school board member, asked if there is a place in district and college cooperation where The Hills are getting “drag,” a lack of cooperation, from the district. No, there’s not, Rubel said, though nationwide Rubel and other post-secondary educators have been grappling with a weakness in mathematics skills among young people.

But the district cooperates with IHCC ideas for getting students additional credit or training.

“We’ve been growing opportunities for high school students,” Swanson told the board. “College classes, summer camps for credits, but also to see whether they’re going to like some of the experiences they might [become involved in].”

In fact, Swanson said, the Ottumwa school district has been very helpful to their own students when it comes to advancing. There are college classes at the high school, and that happens because OHS allows teachers to get an advanced certification so that they can teach college-credit classes via Indian Hills. Teens can also go to their local community college for classes, or even get college credits on line. That allows them to go on and get a degree at a four year school.

She reiterated what Rubel said, however: not everyone is going to want an English degree.

“I’m a former English teacher, so I’m not saying [anything bad] about college, but it’s not everybody’s gig. It’s good to have different opportunities for different kinds of kids.”

To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark