Jobs available, workers needed

July 25th, 2014

News Coverage:

Jobs available, workers needed

Recent state stats emphasize gap between demand and skills

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2014 6:30 am | Updated: 6:39 am, Fri Jul 25, 2014.

By Lucretia Cardenas

The disconnect several state and regional agencies are trying to tackle is how to match up the unemployed workforce with the open jobs – many of which are in trucking and manufacturing.

Thousands of jobs remain open in northeast Indiana, particularly those for occupations often referred to as mid-skilled, which require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year traditional college degree.

“We lost some jobs at the lower end of the skill spectrum during the recession and the jobs that are coming back are more skilled,” said Gary Gatman, executive vice president of strategic initiatives for Northeast Indiana Works.

In a recently released Indiana Chamber of Commerce survey, nearly 40 percent of employers said they left jobs unfilled in 2013 due to a lack of qualified applicants. When asked if the statewide survey resonates in the northeast corner as well, several agency officials and employers responded with the same answer: “Absolutely.”

“Any time we have turnover, it’s becoming harder and harder to find a replacement,” said John Whitcraft, president and owner of Precise Manufacturing in Fort Wayne. “It stunts our ability to grow.”

To address the issue, Precise Manufacturing is starting an internal apprenticeship program, but the effort is costly for a company with 43 employees, he said.

Mark Webb has a similar situation at his manufacturing company, Quik Cut Inc., in Fort Wayne. The company has five job openings that remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants, Webb said.

“If we can’t fill the jobs, we can’t grow at the pace we need to, to satisfy my customers,” Webb said. “It affects my existing employees … they need to be able to advance and move up.”

Both Webb and Whitcraft are participating in a local manufacturing CEO roundtable aimed at sharing experiences and finding solutions to address the gap between employer demand and work-force skills.

One main theme emerging from such groups in northeast Indiana is the need to change the perception of the jobs that are in highest demand – such as trucking and manufacturing.

“The cultural element of this is that our region enjoyed the benefits of high-wage, low-skilled jobs, but these jobs have gone away,” said Kathleen Randolf, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Workforce Investment Board. “The legacy of this change is families saw a negative exit.

Several others note that the public, in general, doesn’t consider factory work as a good job. Twenty-five years ago, factories were dirty, oily machine shops, Whitcraft said. Today, they are clean and mostly filled with computers and robotics.

“Manufacturing has a different meaning than it did 25 years ago,” Whitcraft said.

In addition, employers need to become more attractive, Webb said. At his own company, the percent of profit sharing increased and the work week is now four days instead of five. These changes are about becoming “profitable and marketable” to employees, he said.

The challenge to companies is to adjust to the quality of life issues so important to today’s work force, Whitecraft said.

Another issue contributing to the job demand/skills gap is a nonexistent data repository for credentials. It’s a supply and demand issue, Randolf said.

Employers and many studying the issue know what types of jobs need to be filled but are unclear on the number needing to be trained.

“For us to grow the regional economy, you can’t do this without addressing employment,” said John Sampson, president and CEO of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.

The Center for Education and Career Innovation is attempting to capture the needed data points from across the state, said Jackie Dowd, special assistant to the governor for career innovation.

“Northeast Indiana has a history of pulling together groups in the area to address these issues,” Dowd said. “We are trying to foster some more of that across the state.”

Task forces are working to understand industry sectors and quantify employer demand and regional economic needs, Dowd said. Much of the data should be collected within a year or less she said.

Also, Sampson noted, schools need to be more connected to the needs of employers. Students attending secondary education not only need graduate, “they need to work,” Sampson said.

That being said, a secondary school has an incentive to cater to student demands, not employer demands, Randolf said.

Training for employer demand is not just about working with high schools and technical schools, Randolf, Sampson, Gatman and Dowd concurred. According to the Institute of Working Families, 65 percent of the Indiana work force in 2010 will still be part of the work force in 2025.

That requires addressing the training of the existing work force. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Survey, one in six individuals in the Indiana work force lacks a high school diploma or equivalent, Dowd said.

“We can’t just think of the K-12,” Dowd said. “We need to think of the adult work force and their need to upgrade their skills.”

Upgrading skills is not time consuming or costly, Gatman said. Some programs, such as becoming a certified welder, take as little as 90 to 120 hours to complete, assuming the student possesses basic math and mechanical skills. A commercial driver’s license program takes four to six weeks to complete.

Many area employers and organizations, such as WorkOne, help fund technical training courses, Gatman said.

“There are opportunities out there,” he said. “You just have to position yourself.”

The hope is that with more data and awareness of the opportunities, the gap will minimize in the coming years to keep northeast Indiana competitive nationally and globally.