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Tight labor market turns more employers to training

April 2nd, 2018

By Doug LeDuc | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

More of the region’s employers have engaged with government programs designed to improve worker skills, and colleges have been seeing more students enrolling with help from employers who reimburse or otherwise help cover their training costs.

“Certainly, employers are increasingly interested in skilling up their workforces through training, especially as the supply of both skilled and less-skilled workers is declining,” said Rick Farrant, director of communications for Northeast Indiana Works. “We know this anecdotally as well as statistically.”

Take Skill-Link, a certification-based program for incumbent workers. Under the program, employers choose high-potential employees for certification training and the expectation is that those employees will be promoted once they complete the training. Then Work One Northeast will work to fill the jobs left vacant by the promotion.

In the vast majority of cases, employers have paid 20 percent of the Skill-Link training costs.

During the last two years, 39 northeast Indiana Skill-Link classes have been conducted across the region and 280 individuals have participated in the training, with 258 completing it.

“It’s been a wildly popular program,” Farrant said. “Employers also are taking advantage of programs for new hires, such as the Employer Training Grant offered as part of Gov. (Eric) Holcomb’s Next Level Jobs initiative.”

The program will provide qualified employers in high-demand industries up to $2,500 per new employee, not to exceed $25,000 per company, to train the new hires, which it must employ for at least six months.

The high-demand industries include advanced manufacturing, agriculture, building and construction, health and life sciences, IT and business services, and transportation and logistics.

Participating employers may choose to provide in-house training or recommend an external training provider, which then must be approved by DWD, spokesman David Shatkowski said in an email.

Because the training it supports is for new hires, the grant program can be used as an economic development tool to help attract jobs to Indiana.

The program “is fairly easy to access,” Farrant said. Since it was launched last summer, 62 companies in northeast Indiana have expressed interest in the grant and 14 of them have signed an agreement with the state to participate in it.

“While all these training initiatives are important to ensuring a robust skilled workforce and helping northeast Indiana retain talent, we are still left with the nagging dilemma that northeast Indiana’s population is not sufficient to supply talent for all the needs of our employers,” he said.

As a result, key stakeholders regionally and locally have embraced the challenge and are going full throttle on talent initiatives.

“Even without the assistance of programs like Skill-Link and Next Level Jobs, we know anecdotally employers are motivated to provide training for employees – especially for high-level skilled positions – and in some cases, employers pay or reimburse the full cost for such training,” Farrant said.

Two of the largest industries in northeast Indiana are manufacturing and health care and both of those are heavily involved in recruitment efforts and training. Statewide, the most significant interest in Next Level Jobs came from the advanced manufacturing and health science sectors, Farrant said.

Demand for skilled-trades talent has grown in northeast Indiana as the pace of economic recovery has accelerated, said Bob Parker, who chairs the Advanced Automation and Robotics Technology and Industrial Technology department at the Fort Wayne campus of Ivy Tech Community College.

“Five years ago I was nowhere near as involved with employers and meeting with them to see what their needs were,” he said. Indiana’s average unemployment rate for January 2013 was 8.5 percent, and workers were easier to find.

With Indiana’s unemployment rate at less than half that level, “a lot of skilled trades positions are not being filled right now because there’s not a large pool of candidates,” Parker said.

Almost every week, Parer is talking to some company in northeast Indiana about its training needs and what the school can do to help.

“They can’t hire the skilled labor they need in the way they used to do it, so they’re more open in coming up with programs where they’re paying for 100 percent of the tuition and books, and some are even paying for them to sit in class,” he said.

Industrial employers of all sizes in the region have been turning to training to meet their skill needs, including some of the larger plants, such as those operated by Steel Dynamics, B.F. Goodrich, and General Motors.

The most recent county-level Indiana Department of Workforce Development data available in mid-March showed January unemployment rates of 4.5 percent for the United States and 3.6 percent for Indiana.

Among the state’s 92 counties, half a dozen had unemployment rates below 2.8 percent and four of them were in northeast Indiana. Elkhart and LaGrange counties tied for the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.4 percent.

Within northeast Indiana’s 11 counties, the state’s rate was only exceeded by Wabash County at 3.8 percent. The next highest unemployment rate in the region was 3.3 percent, reported for Allen and Wells counties.