Next gen workers

June 16th, 2017

By Bridgett Hernandez | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Early education advocates have long touted the expansion of high-quality pre-kindergarten programs as a worthy investment in the future workforce as well as a tool for talent attraction. However, the recent expansion may also provide more immediate relief for employers feeling the squeeze of a tight labor market.

That’s good news for employers in communities like Kosciusko County.

“Right now, we have more jobs than people,” said Darren Bickel, president and CEO of United Way of Kosciusko County.

Kosciusko County is one of 15 additional counties that are now eligible to participate in On My Way Pre-K. Starting in 2018, the program will make pre-K available to four-year-olds who come from low-income families in these counties.

Bickel said this will provide opportunities for 100 to 150 children in Kosciusko County. The availability of high-quality early education is especially important in a tight labor market, he said. It could determine whether a single parent could remain employed.

“In this environment, nobody wants to lose a good employee because they can’t find a quality opportunity for their youngster,” he said.

In conversations with the county’s employers, he’s finding that they are going to great lengths to find and keep employees, including raising their entry-level wage in some cases. Supporting the expansion of pre-K is also a part of this strategy, he said.

An investment in the workforce

Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly expanded the program from five pilot counties to 20 counties, increasing the program’s funding from $12 million to $22 million.

The other additional counties include Bartholomew, DeKalb, Delaware, Elkhart, Floyd, Grant, Harrison, Howard, Madison, Marshall, Monroe, St. Joseph, Tippecanoe and Vigo.

These counties will join Allen, Jackson, Lake, Marion and Vanderburgh counties, which have provided early education via the On My Way Pre-K program since 2015.

In announcing the additional counties, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb called the expansion “an essential investment we must make in Indiana’s workforce and our state’s future.”

The economic impacts of pre-K was the topic of the second annual Indiana Summit for Economic Development via Early Learning Coalitions in Bloomington June 5, which brought together more than 400 early education advocates and business leaders from throughout the state.

Timothy Bartik, economist for W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, was one of the summit’s presenters. According to Bartik, early childhood education affects the local economy by increasing the quality of the labor supply of two groups: former child participants as adults as well as parents. And labor supply drives job growth, he said.

Moving forward, the role businesses play is going to be a big part of conversations about pre-K, Bickel said.

Developing partnerships

In conjunction with the summit, Early Learning Indiana released a new report examining the state’s pre-K expansion and proposing steps to continue the state’s progress on early education.

“On the Road to Pre-K Expansion” outlines ways that business leaders can support the expansion of pre-k, including developing “a partnership with a high-quality pre-K program near your place of work.”

Businesses involvement can range from making information about nearby programs readily available to developing the kind of relationship in which a human resource professional can provide employees with firsthand knowledge of a program, Bickel said. Businesses could even invite these centers to provide educational programs over the lunch hour, he said.

Early Childhood Alliance is an important resource for businesses to learn more about what quality early childhood care and education look like, Bickel said. The nonprofit serves the early education needs of children across northeast Indiana.

Five of the counties included in the pre-K expansion are in the organization’s service delivery area.

Early Childhood Alliance’s services include parent engagement programs; assistance for families searching for childcare; training early childhood professionals; and two accredited learning centers. The organization also works with other service organizations and the business community.

CEO Madeleine Baker described the partnership between businesses and early programs as a “win-win proposition.”

“Businesses will benefit on the recruitment and retention of their workforce when programs provide early care and education for their young children,” she said.

“Often times, we miss the connection that early care and education support employers’ recruitment, retention and investment of their workforce.”

For more information, business leaders can visit Early Childhood Alliance’s website at For more information about On My Way Pre-K, visit