Skilled Trades Enhancement Program

Attracting and retaining talent is the single most challenging issue facing nearly every community. More and more people are choosing where to live based on amenities rather than on a job, and the people moving to areas like Hardin County generally have a connection to the area (e.g., family or in-laws live there).

Keeping people in these communities is even more challenging; if a community does not offer key amenities, what entices them to stay there? Of course, the inability to attract and retain talent limits economic growth, which drives the demand for additional community amenities.

One way to overcome this attraction and retention challenge is to develop an incentive program for a specific industry. For Hardin County, that industry should be skilled trades. In initial visioning sessions, the current and growing need for skilled trades repeatedly surfaced.

Residents recognized the presence of thirty-six businesses in Hardin County (see Appendix B) that rely on the skilled trades, driving a significant share of the county economy. However, many people employed at these businesses are retiring or nearing retirement, and there are not enough people to fill these jobs. This in turn drives the need to leave Hardin County for essential services, to rely on providers from surrounding areas, or, even worse, to relocate outside of the county.

To withstand this impending wave of retirements, Hardin County needs to launch a talent incentive program focused on the skilled trades. The Skilled Trades Enhancement Program (STEP) should not only encourage people with expertise in skilled trades to move to Hardin County but also to remain in Hardin County.

The attraction piece of STEP is to offer a student debt forgiveness program for those working in the skilled trades. Considering the average trade school degree costs $33,000, STEP should offer up to $20,000 in student loan repayment assistance per person. To ensure companies retain talent, these payments should be made in thirds at a rate of $6,667 each year the person is employed at a participating company. If an employee does not have student debt, this money could be used for rent and/or mortgage assistance.

STEP should be funded collaboratively funded by the aforementioned 36 businesses, the Iowa Area Development Group, Ellsworth Community College, the State of Iowa, and the six school districts in Hardin County (AGWSR, Alden, BCLUW, Eldora-New Providence, Hubbard-Radcliffe, and Iowa Falls). Each school district should commit $500 annually, while the others should commit $2,500 annually, allowing STEP to support 15 people each year and re-energize the skilled trades in Hardin County. Of course, these figures are flexible, and community leaders may consider various tiers for different sizes of businesses. The draft business plan can be found in Appendix C.

While not every business will hire each year, pooling resources will, in the long run, result in cost savings for each participating business. Each entity would only have to tap into STEP once every eight years to see a one-for-one return on investment.

The businesses also will benefit from the program being administered by the Hardin County Development Alliance as an in-kind contribution to STEP. This will reduce the amount of overhead each organization needs to commit to such a program and ensure all 36 businesses share in the benefits of the program: A skilled workforce that likely will bring with them families, creating a multiplier impact across the economy. The Alliance will have fiscal management responsibility for STEP and also will ensure that all businesses have the chance to tap into the funding as needed.

It is important to recognize there may not be 15 applicants in the initial years of the program. Any remaining funds should be redirected to marketing efforts to grow awareness about the program. Additionally, remaining funds could be used to support the six local school districts in developing the skilled trades pipeline for the employers. Ideally, the program will sunset at a time to be determined based on employers’ ability to fill skilled trades jobs.

The FIND Project – Fulfilling Iowa’s Need for Dentists – provides an optimal model for Hardin County as leaders look to implement a talent incentive program. The FIND Project is “committed to connecting dentists and underserved communities with the resources needed to combat Iowa’s dental shortage so that dental care is close to home for every Iowan.”

A partnership between Delta Dental, the Iowa Area Development Group, the University of Iowa College of Dentistry & Dental Clinics, the Iowa Department of Public Health, Aureon, and the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, FIND works with communities and dentists to recruit and establish private dental offices in rural and underserved areas around the state.

FIND offers up to $100,000 for dental education debt over a five-year period. Dentists participating in FIND must be fully trained and licensed, interested in a public health role but in a private practice setting, and committed to serving in a rural or underserved area of Iowa. They also must be willing to allocate 35 percent of their patient load to underserved individuals, such as the elderly, very young children, nursing home residents, Medicaid participants, Dental Wellness Plan members, non-insured, etc., during the program period.

  • Electrical and electronics repairers
  • Extruding and drawing machine setters
  • Electrical and electronics engineering technicians
  • Stationary engineers and boiler operator
  • Maintenance workers, machinery
  • Electricians
  • Computer-controlled machine tool operators
  • Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters
  • Welders
  • Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters
  • Industrial machinery mechanics
  • Computer numerically-controlled machine tool programmers
  • Chemical technicians
  • Cutting, punching, and press machine setters
  • Drilling and boring machine tool setters
  • Chemical equipment operators and tenders
  • Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders
  • Lathe and turning machine tool setters
  • Machinists
  • Tool and die makers
  • Separating, filtering, clarifying, precipitating, and still machine setters

Action Steps


Ellsworth Community College & Hardin County Development Alliance

Using this action plan and the associated business plan as a starting point, develop details of STEP, potentially including tier structure for funders. Determine eligibility, stipulations of receiving support, prioritization, etc. Work collaboratively with funders to ensure buy-in and financial support.

Q2 2018


Ellsworth Community College & Hardin County Development Alliance

Develop two-page handout showing highlights of program. Make asks of potential funders identified in business plan.  Show return on investment and impact on their work. Paint the picture of addressing the worker shortage collaboratively.

Q2-Q4 2018


Ellsworth Community College & Hardin County Development Alliance

Work with participating businesses to advertise STEP as they post jobs. Determine target audience. Design and launch marketing campaign for STEP using various channels.

Q1 2019