By Georgia Reagan and Michelle Burris

Waterloo, Iowa, got an urgent wake-up call in 2018. Despite being one of Iowa’s most diverse towns with a major manufacturing hub, a financial commentary site listed it as the worst city to be a Black American.

Waterloo’s good manufacturing jobs—and other economic opportunities—mostly went to white workers, who were nearly five times as likely to be employed as their Black neighbors.

The poor ranking prompted alarm and action in Waterloo, where nearly 70 percent of residents are white.  To quote a modern phrase, Hawkeye Community College understood the assignment. The school, located in the heart of Waterloo, leveraged federal funding, community partnerships, and local elected officials to make Hawkeye’s workforce program a nationally recognized model, and with the influx of new students, their programs of success are just getting started.

And in the six years since the “worst” ranking was released, Waterloo moved up six places on the 24/7 Wall St. report. But much more work lies ahead for community leaders, employers, partners, and educators as they work to reverse trends, close racial gaps, and expand opportunities for all citizens eager to learn and earn.

Leaders focus on helping students and workers of color get the manufacturing skills they need for good jobs, including at local plants John Deere, Tyson, and Conagra. Nationally, manufacturing is seen as a “white man’s career,” with Black workers filling only 9.5 percent of jobs. Women also are underrepresented. These trends hurt the industry, which faces a projected 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030 due to too few skilled workers.

Here are some people and programs making headway on this crucial mission:

College coalition: More than 50,000 students have graduated from Hawkeye Community College, with nearly 1,500 graduates annually. But the school struggles to reach students of color, especially those eager to learn manufacturing skills for local plant jobs. The solution? In 2022, Hawkeye joined the  Industry and Inclusion Cohort, a national project involving 12 community colleges funded by Lumina Foundation. The goal is to increase the number of people of color in manufacturing jobs. The coalition, led by The Century Foundation and the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, aims to help participants earn up to 3,000 credentials, with half going to Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Asian students. So far, there’s been a 10 percent increase in credentials and enrollment for learners of color.

Robotics Center: Hawkeye’s Smart Automation and Robotics Center demonstrates the school’s commitment to prioritizing career-based learning. Housed in a former John Deere warehouse, it serves as a lab space for students, featuring top-of-the-line equipment for hands-on learning. The historic building is also home to a business incubator space and the University of Northern Iowa Metal Casting Center—a hub connecting students to dozens of opportunities. Hawkeye’s team works closely with these and other employers to develop classes and microcredentials that have value in the workplace. High schoolers are getting into the act, too: summer camps are full for high school students eager to gain hands-on manufacturing experience. ONE Cedar Valley, which works to eliminate employment barriers, is helping to lead that effort.

Welcoming students: Hawkeye’s Student Connection and Experience Director Rhonda McRina makes it a priority to make students feel welcome by promptly answering their questions and meeting their needs. She oversees the campus Unity and Understanding Center, a dedicated space for students to gather, seek academic and social services, and meet with tutors. McRina has also implemented a “Know Before You Go” program that helps prospective students learn more about admissions, financial aid, career choices, and much more. Hawkeye also offers more apprenticeship programs than any other Iowa college. English skills classes are available, too; more than nine percent of Waterloo’s residents are immigrants.

Push for federal funding: Growing up in Waterloo, Kysha Wright Frazier knows the city’s needs firsthand. “Waterloo has always been the underdog,” says Wright Frazier, president and CEO of Corporation for a Skilled Workforce (CSW). Though she has moved away, she still considers Waterloo home. That’s why she worked to bring $5 million of federal infrastructure funding from the Biden-Harris Investing in America initiative. With help from the college and ONE Cedar Valley, the funding will increase access to critical infrastructure and renewable energy careers by training about 2,500 workers over five years. ONE Cedar Valley is already at work on crucial recruiting steps.

Local leaders: Mayor Quentin Hart, Waterloo’s first Black mayor, uses a holistic approach to improve life for residents. He was concerned by the 2018 report naming the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area as the nation’s highest social and economic disparities along racial lines. To correct this, Hart is investing in at-risk neighborhoods, creating child-care facilities, and launching an immigration task force to deliver wraparound services. His family is fully involved, too—his son participated in the popular summer robotics camp.

Powerful partnerships: Joy Briscoe, executive director at ONE Cedar Valley, recently hosted a panel of speakers, including this story’s authors (Georgia Reagan and Michelle Burris), to discuss progress made and next steps for Waterloo. That conference was a perfect example of how Briscoe is bringing diverse people and talents together, including partnering with Wright Frazier and CSW to put the new federal funding to work on training programs and work-based courses that prepare jobseekers for high-demand careers.

Leaders hope their powerful partnerships, hard work, and innovative ideas on behalf of Waterloo will help students and workers thrive, close racial gaps, spur further investments, and pave a brighter future across Iowa for generations to come.

[Georgia Reagan is strategy officer for employment-aligned credentials at Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation that helps Americans learn and earn beyond high school. Michelle Burris is a fellow at The Century Foundation, focusing on racial and gender equity in workforce development. She helps to lead the Industry and Inclusion Cohort. This blog is part of a series called “Combined Forces,” highlighting partnerships between community colleges and city and business leaders to build relationships supporting students and workers of color through their college and career years. Read earlier series articles here and here.] 

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