MASON CITY | After nearly 30 years as an educator, North Iowa Area Community College President Steven Schulz doesn't view academia and business as separate worlds.

"I've just enjoyed the opportunity to see K-12, and then college, as part of the economic development process," said Schulz, who took over at NIACC last December.

Sustainable economic growth requires good jobs and skilled workers able to fill them. Schulz noted quality education is critical for both.

"When individuals move to a community, they look at the (K-12) schools," Schulz said. "When businesses locate they look at community colleges and what training is available."

Schulz grew up in Geneva, the son of a school administrator who stressed the importance of education early and often.

"It was never a question in my home if you were going to go for college or training, just where," he said.

"Where" turned out to be many places for Schulz.

Having decided at a young age to be a history teacher and coach, Schulz pursued his undergraduate studies at Wartburg College. Subsequent educational endeavors took him to the University of Northern Iowa, Drake and finally Iowa State University, where he received his doctorate.

"Every 10 years I got the itch to do something,"  Schulz said.

Professional opportunities led Schulz to Carroll, where he started as the middle school principal in 1991 and advanced to superintendent in 2000.

While superintendent, Schulz became a member of the Carroll Chamber of Commerce, which allowed him to develop close ties with the business community and presented numerous opportunities to assist with economic development efforts.

These experiences served Schulz well when he moved to the Carroll campus of Des Moines Area Community College in 2004, where he eventually rose to the provost position he held until joining NIACC.

Not unlike Mason City, Carroll is a mid-sized community that serves as a hub for surrounding small-town and rural residents and employers.

"There's certainly more advanced manufacturing here than in Carroll, but the needs are similar," Schulz said.

As at Carroll, Schulz said his mission at NIACC is to work closely with both students and the business community to make certain the programs they offer are meeting those needs.

"We're not interested in taking people's money; we're interested in adding value to their lives."

In addition to offering traditional academic and technical programs, NIACC partners with IowaWORKS to help employees gain appropriate work skills and habits as well as to connect them with employers looking for those skills.

"We're in job training up to our eyeballs," Schulz said.

He also noted NIACC cooperates closely with the North Iowa Corridor Economic Development Corp. (Schulz now serves on its board) as well as other regional and state economic development agencies to administer business grants and facilitate bonding to help employers meet job-training needs.

Schulz is particularly proud to head the only Iowa community college to offer a Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

Coupled with the Small Business Development Center and Business Incubator, NIACC is "a one-stop shop for people who want to grow their own business," Schulz said.

"This is probably the premier business-support model in the state of Iowa," he added. "I'd argue we should duplicate it."

Schulz is excited by the diversity and strength of the North Iowa economy, yet acknowledges it presents obstacles as well as opportunities for NIACC.

Community college enrollment tends to drop when the job market is strong, and NIACC has not been immune.

"One of our challenges right now is students taking jobs before they finish programs," Schulz said.

NIACC is adopting several strategies to better serve both students and employers during the current tight labor market.

The college is increasing emphasis on shorter certificate programs to teach specific job skills.

"It's more about what people can do than what degrees they have in today's labor market," Schulz said.

For longer programs, Schulz said the college is increasing its offerings of evening and online classes to accommodate working students and their employers.

To address both declining enrollment and the local labor shortage, Schulz plans to increase recruiting at the local, out-of-state and international levels.

"Ninety percent of community college graduates stay here," Schulz said. "That's good for North Iowa."

Despite the broad-based strategy, regional efforts will be a key priority.

NIACC already has a strong concurrent enrollment plan, which allows students to complete some college-level work while still in high school. Schulz believes this helps the college with recruiting while offering a good value to students and their families.

It is a program he would like to see expanded.

"Our goal is to better serve high schools beyond a 25-mile radius (from campus)."

Offerings such as Entrepreneur for a Day (E4D) and Youth Entrepreneurial Academy are encouraging young people to consider building their careers in North Iowa.

Schulz intends to work closely with business and school leaders to inform students of other regional employment options.

"We need to make people aware of the great opportunities in Iowa," Schulz said. "That's going to take everyone in our communities."

Schulz believes his previous work in economic development and as a school administrator will assist him in forming the necessary coalitions.

He also hopes his experience as the father of two college-age daughters will help him better relate to the needs of students and families as they negotiate the challenges of college admission, enrollment, financial aid and other factors.

"You also experience the customer side of that (as a parent)," Schulz said. "I work in the business and understand the process, but it's still not easy."

Forming relationships with students is imperative for identifying and meeting their needs, Schulz believes.

He makes time to walk on campus, eat in the cafeteria, help students move into the dorms and "put a personal touch on their experience."

Schulz said NIACC is large enough to have a lot going on but small enough to allow for this personal touch.

"You can connect (with students) in ways that aren't possible in a larger institution."

Building those connections allows Schulz to observe firsthand the positive benefits students derive from their educational experience. He sees this as his primary accomplishment and his chief motivation.

"We really do change lives," Schulz said. "That's what's kept me in higher education."

Schulz also looks forward to forging similar ties with North Iowa employers.

"When you come into a new position like this, you spend a lot of time watching and listening," Schulz said. "I'm still in the process of getting to know the business leaders in town and getting the pulse of what's needed.

"We're responsible to meet the needs of the community. We want to be good partners."