Harsh reality: Skills gap must be addressed
Tuesday, March 05, 2013 10:00 AM
Indiana's "skills gap" is a serious problem that the state must tackle with more effort and more dollars.
The term "skills gap" refers to a bundle of shortcomings that add up to one significant problem facing Indiana - thousands of adult residents lack the training to do 21st-century jobs.
The recession of 2007 to 2009 saw demand for jobs shrink as entire industries died. Today, Indiana's jobless rate of 8.2 percent remains above the national rate of 7.8.
Of that 8.2-percent unemployment rate, about 1.5 to 2 percent can be attributed to skills gap issues, according to Michael Hicks, director of the Ball State University Center for Business and Economic Research.
By the Indiana Chamber of Commerce's calculations, the state has almost 1 million people in need of vocational or college education to handle the high-tech tasks required by Indiana employers in the coming decade.
Last month, Chrysler announced plans to invest $374 million into transmission manufacturing in central Indiana, creating the largest parts complex in the world. The facility will need 1,250 workers, and more than half must have advanced training. Jeff Griffin, director of the College of Technology at Purdue University's Kokomo campus, said there aren't enough people with the necessary skills to fill those jobs.
As a result, Purdue is adding a new mechanical engineering technology faculty member to boost training for students interested in that vocation. The university is also negotiating with Chrysler to develop a research partnership, Griffin said.
That response is a step in the right direction. It also points to some harsh realities Indiana must address.
The state must invest heavily in state-of-the-art education. That investment will not be cheap. The Indiana House's proposed budget doubles funding for the Skills Enhancement Fund - a resource to train Hoosier workers, including many whose trades disappeared in the recession - to $36 million. Councils to study the skills gap are forming, through new legislation, which is good, but the Legislature needs to boost funding of education at all age levels.
There are two statewide issues that were discussed in a recent meeting of Jefferson County's Economic Development Partners.
Many workers in the skills-gap group are passed over by employers because of risky health behaviors, Hicks said, such as smoking, drug use and obesity. Last week, Gallup-Healthways released its 2012 Well-Being Index for states, and Indiana ranked 49th (next to last) in health behaviors, down four spots from a year ago. Fixing that vast problem centers on better personal responsibility.
The skills gap, for some, actually amounts to a "work ethic gap." Some prospective workers don't understand the importance of work attendance, showing up on time, getting along with co-workers, and dressing and behaving appropriately. Some lose jobs over those flaws. Some never get hired. Many never had a family member model those traits.
As a state, Indiana must show it takes these issues seriously, or accept the skills gap long-term.