Talent Initiative winds down, but results are just starting to pay off

April 12th, 2013

News Coverage:

Talent Initiative winds down, but results are just starting to pay off

Posted: Friday, April 12, 2013 12:00 am

By Doug LeDuc

Northeast Indiana has started expanding its pool of talent required for prosperity in an era when the quality of a region’s work force can make or break its chances for vibrant economic growth.

And it has a number of programs in place to keep that talent pool growing as a result of a three-year initiative, which began with a $20-million Lilly Endowment grant in 2009.

The regional Talent Initiative recently filed its final report and now is transitioning into an effort with a broader scope called “the big goal,” which aims to boost the percentage of northeast Indiana residents with a degree or creditential to 60 percent by 2025. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership has operational oversight of the Talent Initiative, and a 2012 annual report the partnership just completed lists a number of the initiative’s quantifiable goals:

• It provided funding to 144 employers to train their incumbent workers; Talent Initiative funding enabled WorkOne Northeast to retrain 3,342 workers, including 2,588 incumbent workers and 754 transitional workers.

• Its funding helped launch New Tech programs in two middles schools and open six New Tech high schools with project-based learning focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

• Its funding provided training to 1,300 teachers throughout the region in project-based learning.

Leonard Helfrich, the initiative’s executive director, said its more important accomplishments also included helping establish three centers of excellence at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and helping improve an advanced-manufacturing center at Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast.

With 160 defense/aerospace prime contractors and suppliers in the region at the time of the Lilly Endowment grant application, the need to fill the talent pipeline for these high- wage employers requiring high levels of education and training was pressing, because with each passing year more of their engineers were reaching retirement age, he said.

“We were successful in meeting the commitments we made to the Lilly Endowment in our application,” Helfrich said. “We were seeking to provide for the long term the education and skill levels needed by our defense contractors and manufacturers.

“In the end, we recognized … meeting the challenge was the calling card our region wanted to present: the ability to develop and attract and retain talent for all of our employers,” he said.

“Not only did we want to meet the needs of our employers, but by meeting those needs we would create higher-skilled, higher-wage jobs for our region’s residents.”

Ivy Tech-Northeast received more than $2 million in grant funding from the Talent Initiative to buy some of the latest capital equipment, advanced-manufacturing machinery and software for the Advanced Manufacturing Labs in the Steel Dynamics Keith E. Busse Technology Center.

Most of the Ivy Tech-Northeast funding was spent on high-end computer numerical control equipment, but the center also was able to buy precision measuring machines and robotic and metallurgy testing equipment.

“We purchased two Swiss machines. These are high-precision, small-diameter machines, so they make small, intricate parts,” said John Walter, dean of Ivy Tech-Northeast’s School of Technology.

“Numerous employers around our area cannot find people to operate these machines,” he said. “If you’re driving on U.S. 30 west from Columbia City, there’s a big billboard that says if you can run Swiss machines, give us a call. It’s a local company.” Since the advanced-manufacturing equipment was added, enrollment in the courses that use it has increased from 49 students in the spring of 2010 to 285 students.

In addition to the defense and aerospace industries, employers in the automotive and orthopedic-device industries stand to benefit from the high level of skills students are acquiring in advanced-manufacturing courses at Ivy Tech-Northeast, Walter said.

The Talent Initiative has distributed most of $4.5 million in funding it budgeted for IPFW programs that can help fill the talent pipeline for defense/aerospace employers in the area.

Of that amount, $1.5 million was to create and upgrade labs and $3 million was to cover the cost of endowed faculty positions for Systems Engineering and Wireless Communication centers of excellence.

In addition to those two centers, the initiative has helped IPFW fund an Information Analytics and Visualization Center.

“The planning and design of the laboratory has been taking place since last September, and we are about ready to purchase all that equipment,” said Max Yen, dean of the college of engineering, technology and computer science at IPFW.

The lab includes a cluster of high-speed computers that will perform complex calculations needed to create high-quality three-dimensional images and a sophisticated 3D projection system to create a life-sized virtual environment.

In addition to their educational benefits, new laboratories at the college of engineering, technology and computer science can collaborate with area employers on research and conduct some research for them on a contractual basis.

Yen said Talent Initiative funding support has helped IPFW produce more engineers with graduate degrees.

By 2011, the university was graduating more than 20 students per year with engineering master’s degrees and concentrations in systems engineering or wireless technology. It is not unusual for engineering students who have not entered the work force on a permanent, full-time basis to do internships with area defense contractors and then go to work for them after graduating, Yen said.

IPFW also is a source of advanced training for engineers who are permanent, full-time employees with defense and aerospace employers in the region, he said.

“I think we can help develop the competitive edge of the local defense industry in leveraging defense contracts to create jobs and help with economic development,” Yen said. “It has been a real nice working partnership.”

“The other side of the equation would be probably that we hope we can encourage innovations, which might lead to patents or innovative technologies that could lead to business startups and create jobs.”

Bruce Menshy, former head of Raytheon Co.’s Fort Wayne operations and former chairman of the Northeast Indiana Defense Industry Association, said by offering graduate degrees in engineering, IPFW has with support from the Talent Initiative raised the bar for talent in the field regionally.

“Dealing with sequestration and other issues has changed what’s going on today, but ups and downs in the defense business happen and the need for talented people doesn’t go away,” he said.

“Demographics are certainly one of the issues (employers face); baby boomers are exiting the work force and a lot of talented engineers and technicians are exiting it, and we need to rebuild the pipeline.”

STEM education is having a greater impact on the region’s culture. And Menshy predicted it will see long-term benefits from the Talent Initiative’s effectiveness at establishing collaboration among groups that can focus resources on the development and retention of talent.

“All of the defense companies in Fort Wayne certainly need technical skills and … talented people,” he said. “I’m certain they would echo that the collaboration has been positive.”