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Cultivating + Retaining Youth in DSM Through Talent-Based Programming

Training Opportunities

Greater Des Moines (DSM) continues to boast low unemployment rates, but local leaders in the region are always considering how to cultivate and retain local talent, which is vital to the vibrancy of DSM. This includes focusing on creating an inclusive workforce and providing work-based opportunities for all ages of talent. Training opportunities for youth and diversity initiatives are a big piece of the puzzle in maintaining high numbers of professionals in DSM and just a few of the ways we can do so.

During the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s recent Youth Employment Panel, the following panelists discussed the search for talent and need for talent-based programming to attract and retain workers in the region:

Current Programming

There are a variety of youth employment initiatives currently being undertaken throughout DSM. Oakridge Neighborhood is one such project. According to Johnson, Oakridge is a 50-year housing project providing youth services and child care with funding drawn from a variety of community organizations to serve anywhere from 90-100 students each year.

Children and Families of Iowa is another such organization. CFI runs two major programs, Connect to Careers and Your Employment Program serving counties here in DSM and in the Fort Dodge area. These programs focus on recruitment and retention into the workforce, assessing skill sets and interest of youth and providing an abundance of training opportunities to place youth into a variety of career programs. Evelyn K. Davis Center for Career and Working Families (EKD) also serves individuals throughout the region alongside community partners placing youth in work programs. EKD focuses on the entire professional experience, encouraging mentorship, professional and personal skill development and building confidence in participating youth.

Future Ready Iowa is an initiative of the state that supports programming such as Oakridge, CFI and EKD. The goal of Future Ready Iowa is for 70% of Iowans to have education and training beyond high school by 2025. The initiative was launched and championed by Governor Kim Reynolds as a result of the skills gap seen in current and future workforce needs. Future Ready Iowa places a large emphasis on work-based learning, internships, registered apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships.

Leggett, Future Ready Iowa’s policy advisor, mentioned two particular aspects of the program designed to assist organizations in developing youth employment programs, including the Summer Youth Internship Pilot Project and the Registered Apprenticeship Startup Fund. The Summer Youth Internship Pilot Project is funded by the state and gives grants to organizations across the state who offer paid work experiences to students. In 2021, $1.6 million was granted to 26 programs statewide. The Registered Apprenticeship Startup Fund, also state funded, allows organizations who start an apprenticeship program to apply for reimbursement funding, up to $25,000. Currently there are 27 high schools with over 50 registered apprenticeship programs running across the state.

Wetrich discussed the employer approach to youth employment opportunities. Across Hy-Vee’s stores, nearly 30% of employees are 19 years old or younger. Building a robust youth employment training and engagement program benefits Hy-Vee’s recruitment program and also assists in building positive relationships in the community’s stores. Hy-Vee takes a variety of approaches to employ and develop youth, including individualized training in specific areas or by creating a cohort with a small group of students. Hy-Vee prides itself on developing internal talent and promoting them within the company. Beginning to work with students at a younger age enables Hy-Vee to build and develop their talent pipeline starting with the high school demographic.

COVID Impact

As with nearly every aspect of life, COVID-19 impacted the youth employment space by limiting the number of opportunities for students to participate in in-person opportunities. Oakridge, CFI and EKD have all transitioned to working in virtual environments. For the three organizations and Future Ready Iowa there were fewer youth employment opportunities in the midst of the pandemic as companies scaled back in-person work opportunities and in some cases furloughed or laid off employees. As the state emerges from pandemic protocols, the opportunity for on-site student participation is increasing for Oakridge, CFI and EKD. Future Ready Iowa also saw additional requests from companies to fund programs and found additional dollars to fulfill those requests.

Best Practices

What are some best practices for companies looking to become more involved in providing work-based learning opportunities and engaging with marginalized youth? Johnson discussed the importance of the experience for youth, describing how a job impacts a young person, provides identity, quality of life, personal development opportunities, gives purpose and helps them to make a living. Agyeman outlined ways EKD is working with DMACC to provide a variety of resources to students who participate in the program including college credits, stackable credentials and certificates and also practical assistance including clothing closets and food cupboards. The idea is to provide students a safe space to learn and gain experience while also providing opportunity to develop as individuals.

Lane discussed the importance of engaging genuinely and authentically with community partners, both corporate and nonprofit, as a way to benefit both the student and the business. Additionally, CFI is leveraging evidence-based curriculum and strategized in their program planning to build an organization that is culturally responsive and reflective of the population they serve. The environment being built is intentionally inviting, fun and safe to give students the opportunity to grow in skills and confidence as they plan for their future career.

Johnson, Agyeman and Lane spoke about the continued need for employer partners. All three programs have an ongoing need for corporations to speak to students about career opportunities, participate in job placement programs and provide program support in building additional experiences. Agyeman encouraged employers interested in building programs to be very intentional about the experience. This time with students is not just about the job but about building connections and relationships to best prepare the student to confidently make career decisions further down the road.

Leggett encouraged employers to not put a barrier up if there isn’t actually one there. If employers are concerned about the logistics of launching a work-based learning program, there are a variety of resources and program frameworks available for review on the Future Ready Iowa website, and she encourages individuals to peruse those and reach out with any questions. Wetrich also encouraged employers to get involved. When reflecting on the impact youth employment opportunities have provided for Hy-Vee, it’s clear the company and community have mutually benefited, both in the short-term by providing youth jobs and in the long-term by investing in the future workforce.

Youth employment is not just about giving a student a job, but about providing the opportunity for students to learn professional skills within the workforce, to develop relationships with mentors and coworkers and to expose them to potential careers and the necessary education pathways to get them there. As we continue to experience workforce disruptions including a shortage of labor and the infusion of technology, investing in youth opportunities now is more important than ever.

Watch the entire webinar below:


Job opportunities and career resources are abundant in Greater Des Moines (DSM). Whether you're looking to find an internship, a job, develop professionally or grow as a student, we have the resources to help you thrive.

Greater Des Moines Partnership

The Greater Des Moines Partnership is the economic and community development organization that serves Greater Des Moines (DSM), Iowa. Together with 23 Affiliate Chambers of Commerce, more than 6,500 Regional Business Members and more than 400 Investors, The Partnership drives economic growth with one voice, one mission and as one region. Through innovation, strategic planning and global collaboration, The Partnership grows opportunity, helps create jobs and promotes DSM as the best place to build a business, a career and a future. Learn more at DSMpartnership.com.