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Education, training accelerate area’s recovery from recession

September 4th, 2016

More work to do

By Rick Farrant | Journal Gazette

When economists declared seven years ago that the recession was over, it hardly felt like it for many people in northeast Indiana. The psychological and financial wounds of the economic downturn were still raw and pervasive.

Fast forward to 2016, and the significant progress we’ve made is evident. The unemployment rate has plunged regionally from double digits to below 5 percent (and below 4 percent in some counties). The labor force, a reflection of people working or looking for work, has been growing. And investments in economic development projects have been promising. Moreover, employers in many industry sectors in northeast Indiana are hiring; every day, Northeast Indiana Works’ WorkOne career centers are asked by employers to help them fill positions, often numbering in the dozens at each business.

All of these trends would seem to portend promise for northeast Indiana. And yet, challenges remain. Some people who are working feel underemployed; a recent national survey indicated nearly half of U.S. workers believe they are underemployed. Wage growth has been relatively sluggish. And employers in some sectors in northeast Indiana are finding it increasingly difficult to fill the empty positions.

The latter is a daunting dilemma and one that the region must solve because a vibrant, fully fueled, skilled workforce is critical to ensuring a stable economy in the years to come. A strong workforce allows existing businesses to prosper and grow, encourages other companies to move operations to our region and may very well persuade young talent to remain in northeast Indiana.

And the need for workers, by all prognostications, is only going to become more acute. In the region’s manufacturing and construction industries alone, it is estimated that, counting anticipated job growth and the need to fill jobs left open by retirements, up to 27,000 additional workers will be needed in the next decade. Other industries are facing similar futures; none are immune from the effects of an aging regional workforce, where 22 percent of all workers are at or near retirement age.

Fortunately, northeast Indiana has put into place or is putting into place numerous strategies and programs that will at least give the region and its workers a fighting chance. As the region’s workforce development organization, Northeast Indiana Works is serving as a leader or partner in many of these efforts. Among the strategies:

• The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership’s Road to One Million campaign, which aims to improve quality-of-life amenities to persuade more people – and much-needed talent – to come to northeast Indiana. The partnership’s Big Goal Collaborative, meanwhile, is working to align workforce and talent development efforts so that the percentage of residents with a quality credential or degree reaches 60 percent by 2025. It is now a little more than 37 percent.

• At least four sector partnerships involving educators and businesses, including Noble County’s Manufacturing and Education Alliance, Allen County’s Gateway Coalition, the Industrial Guild of Steuben County and the Adams-Wells Manufacturing Alliance. The partnerships are designed in large part to create awareness among middle school and high school students about certification-based careers in manufacturing and the skilled trades.

• Program improvement of the region’s five Career and Technical Education districts, which are constantly striving to add or enhance certification-based offerings to high school students that will give young people the opportunity to enter the workforce upon graduation from high school. The districts’ efforts, which also benefit adult learners, were recently buoyed by a $1.35 million state grant.

• Pre-apprentice and apprenticeship programs at the 18 skilled trades organizations in northeast Indiana. The programs allow a person to earn an increasingly good wage while learning on the job, and the skilled trades have recently undertaken a concerted campaign to diversify the ranks of their workers.

• A recent $40,000 grant awarded the Region 3 Works Council and Northeast Indiana Works to develop a work-and-learn model for the region that will create and bolster apprenticeship and internship opportunities.

• Existing free career readiness workshops at WorkOne centers, including sessions in Microsoft Word and Excel, basic computer skills, and resume and interview preparation.

The aforementioned do not include all of the efforts – programs such as the ones at Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana that are designed to improve the employment chances of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities; the state’s H.I.R.E. (Helping Individuals Re-Enter through Employment) initiative, which helps people making the transition from incarceration to the workforce; the nonprofit Blue Jacket Inc., which prepares the disadvantaged for employment; work done at the Carriage House to place people with mental illnesses in gainful employment; Operation: Job Ready Veterans workshops that assist veterans seeking work; STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) emphasis in secondary schools; and college program additions focusing on in-demand occupations.

It is also noteworthy that northeast Indiana has several employment enhancement opportunities for people already in the workforce, including on-the-job training and certification-based instruction.

Raising wages remains a challenge; the region’s per capita income is just 81 percent of the nation’s average and the top-employing industries in northeast Indiana have trailed the state and nation in post-recession wage increases.

But the bottom line is that there are thousands of jobs available to people in northeast Indiana; a recent job fair sponsored by U.S. Rep. Marlin Stutzman at IPFW featured more than 70 employers that in total reportedly had more than 2,400 job openings. And while the region still has work to do in developing education and training programs to fill those positions, northeast Indiana is collaboratively energized toward that end and is already imbued with a robust palette of offerings.

Building a workforce is a two-way street. Not only is it dependent on education and training providers to offer pathways to careers or career enhancement, it is dependent on the initiative of residents to take advantage of those opportunities. For those who show perseverance and an unflinching can-do attitude, the rewards are significant.

With the help of WorkOne funding, Becky Miller, 50, of Fort Wayne began working toward a CNC machining certificate after she was laid off from a defense contractor job, then received on-the-job training for six months when she was hired by Greatbatch Medical. “There’s no excuses,” she said. “There are classes, there are opportunities, and all you have to do is have the motivation to take advantage of them.”

Ricky Cortes, 18, earned three industry certifications in the construction trades program at FWCS Career Academy at Anthis. Three days after his last senior class at Snider High School earlier this year, he was on the job with Strebig Construction. Seeking certifications, he said, is hard work, but “those extra steps are going to benefit you in the long run.”

The experiences of Miller, Cortes and others like them show we have come a long way since June 2009 – that people increasingly have been proactive in their career pursuits to both meet the needs of a healthier economy and secure self- or family-sustaining jobs.

And for those who still feel a sense of hopelessness, especially when it comes to employment, there are two reasons to be optimistic: There are, at least for the foreseeable future, good jobs out there and there are opportunities to acquire the skills necessary to land those jobs.