Skills Matter. So Does Culture.

May 2, 2011

Audubon Magazine Profile of Newton, IA

Not change. Transformation.

When it comes to redeploying 1,800 people who lose their jobs in a plant closure, skills are only a part of the picture.

Maytag was the plant; Newton, Iowa, the community. The economic transition story is nicely documented in numerous publications, but we like this portrait in the (unlikely) Audubon Magazine.

In the past decade, Kim Didier, current Executive Director of Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Business Resources, has worked on the challenge of connecting people and firms in ways that helps each of them and in turn, helps her community to thrive. She's worked on the corporate side, then in economic development. She ran a business innovation network, then served as the Executive Director of the US Department of Labor WIRED (Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development) project in her region.

She has learned a lot about what it takes to advance big change in economic and workforce development.

"It's hard to prepare people for major transitions - it as much about culture as anything else," she notes while describing workers' experiences moving from a workplace characterized by traditional hierarchies to flatter organizations that require a different kind of personal initiative.

"There were demonstrable skill-gaps - we can assess those and help people address them. We're getting better at offering flexible, stackable training that leads to a credential. But there are also those soft-skills..." The ability to work in teams, personal effectiveness, communications skills - these determine whether people will make it long enough to demonstrate their credentials. Building comfort in these areas takes more creativity at every point in the transition process.

It's Not Just About Transitioning Workers
Responding to what was, at the time, an enormous crisis also required policy makers and service providers to step out of their comfort zones. Some leaders stepped up immediately, others took their time, but the effort that seeded a whole new industry in rural Iowa demanded broad, deep, and sustained collaboration. "For workforce, we had to move the conversation from 'training and placement' to 'talent development;' for economic development, we had to shift from 'creating jobs' to 'growing economic opportunity.'" This required:

  • Working with data in a whole new way - looking for trends, not opportunities for transactions;
  • Exploring self-employment and entrepreneurship as viable career options (and providing necessary supports); 
  • Building diverse networks that invite innovation and new ideas; and
  • Tolerating failure - without which there is rarely progress.

Big Ideas Matter
While Newton, Iowa now punches above its weight in the alternative energy industry, it wasn't always this way. "People had to imagine the impossible," and then take steps to make the impossible happen. Kim suggests we've got even bigger challenges now relating to the future of jobs, work, learning - and the way technology impacts our major institutions, "What will it mean anymore to go to work?"

An important role for leaders will be to communicate these changes in a way that makes people feel secure, while encouraging the social connections that allow information to flow, relationships to develop, and give rise to community resilience.

This work is not for the faint of heart.