Kirkwood Community College: The Surprising New Solution, Bringing the Right Technical Education to the Rural Masses

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As Iowa's economy slowly recovers, renewed hiring has shed light on a new challenge: the state's increasing gap between the skills employers need and the skills potential workers actually possess.

Roughly 50 percent of Iowa's available jobs and growing career areas are considered middle skill, requiring more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree. However, 66 percent of Iowa's unemployed or underemployed have no recognized educational credentials past high school. The same study highlighted that worker shortages stretch far beyond the current workforce, meaning the coming generation must seek additional training in order to keep pace with employer demand.

In 2009, Kirkwood Community College pioneered a concept that soon became an educational model for the entire state. With the groundbreaking Jones County Regional Center, the college brought eight area K-12 school districts together with local industry to create a community campus used by high school students, traditional age college students, and adults seeking retraining and certification.

"The time had come to discover innovative ways to provide quality workforce skills with dwindling resources," said Kirkwood Community College President Mick Starcevich. "Kirkwood saw a need and addressed it immediately."

Because the college sought industry input, the Kirkwood Jones County Regional Center curriculum is tailored to the area's employment needs. Rural students now have local access to state-of-the-art, industry-standard technical labs that individual K-12 school districts did not have to finance on their own.

"Foremost, Kirkwood's regional centers create a deep impact on concurrent enrollment opportunities for high school students," Starcevich said. "Many of Kirkwood's concurrent enrollment programs also lead to industry-recognized certifications, meaning students can graduate high school with a collection of free, transferable college credit and a certificate in a trade."

The resounding success of the Kirkwood Jones County Regional Center inspired the college to ask taxpayers for bond issue support in 2011. The seven-county service area voters fully embraced the concept, passing the referendum by an overwhelming 72 percent. The resulting funding will result in three additional regional campuses to serve even more students across Kirkwood's mainly rural service area.

Perhaps the most unique partnership Kirkwood forged is the one with the University of Iowa, one of the nation's leading medical research institutions. Kirkwood will open the Johnson County Regional Center at the university's Oakdale Research Park. The 92,000 square foot, $22 million facility will focus on STEM education, primarily health care, engineering, and biosciences.

Of interest is center also will provide University of Iowa education students and professors with opportunities to test innovative teaching strategies in STEM. Current K-12 teachers will gain valuable training and certification offerings from both the Grant Wood Area Education Agency and the University of Iowa. This training will expand the reach of the center to classrooms statewide.

Additionally, the Kirkwood Johnson County Regional Center will serve as one of six regional STEM hubs, established through the work of the Iowa governor's STEM council. As a STEM hub, the regional center has even greater ability to promote career awareness and workforce development.

Students who study at any of Kirkwood's regional centers can take hands-on classes in advanced manufacturing, welding, pharmacy, information technology, emergency medicine, graphic design, energy/industrial maintenance, patient care/CNA, and arts and sciences transfer courses, just to name a few. This is in concert with all the traditional programming Kirkwood has always brought to the community.

"The ultimate goal, the entire purpose of Kirkwood Community College is to serve community needs," Starcevich said. "These regional centers are one very solid example of how the college administration has the vision to understand community needs and react very quickly to provide a solution."