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January 24, 2013

Gov. Pence calls for more vocational training to close ‘skills gap’

INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Mike Pence’s call, in his State of the State speech, to make vocational education a priority in every high school in Indiana struck a nerve with 75-year-old Bill Beach.

Since 2007, the founder of Beach Mold & Tool has tripled his workforce, to 600, at his manufacturing operations in New Albany and sees more demand coming soon for the tools and plastic parts that his company makes.

But he can’t find enough qualified employees to work on his assembly lines or in some supervisory and technical jobs that pay up to $30 an hour.

“We’re ready to hire people every day,” Beach said. “But our biggest challenge is finding people with the skills and with the work ethic to do the job.”

Beach knows the value of a good vocational education firsthand. As Pence recounted in his State of the State speech – to an audience that included Beach and his wife, Juanita – Beach was sent off for vocational training in high school by his father, who thought Beach was “good with his hands” but not smart enough to go to college.

Beach came out of that high school work-ready: He got a job as a machinist and later, with his wife, started his own company. An older brother who went off to college to get an engineering degree later came back to work for Beach.

Vocational education – in which students focus on skilled trades that require an increasing amount of technical know-how – can provide students “with a pathway to success,” Pence said in his State of State speech. “It can launch entrepreneurs, give kids a reason to finish high school, and create a well-qualified workforce that will encourage business to build here and grow here.”

Pence’s plan to boost career, vocational and technical education in Indiana high schools is driven by the “skills gap” that leaves employers like Beach frustrated. Despite a high unemployment rate – 8.2 percent in Indiana – there are manufacturing jobs that are going unfilled.

The exact number of jobs empty because employers can’t find workers with the right abilities is hard to track.

But the U.S. Department of Labor reports there are more than 300,000 factory jobs  waiting to be filled. In December, Indiana’s workforce development office reported more than 7,000 manufacturing jobs that were unfilled.

State Rep. Steve Stemler, a Democrat from Jeffersonville, said he was “very encouraged and supportive” of Pence’s initiative to strengthen vocational training, both in high school and beyond.

Stemler, who heads a family-owned plumbing company that does both residential and commercial work, knows the need.

“We need to hire four additional well-trained plumbers right now,” Stemler said. “But we’re not able to find the workers with the proper skills sets.”

There are high schools around Indiana that offer vocational and technical training, but Pence’s plan calls for them to be strengthened and tied more directly to the demand for higher skilled workers.  

He wants, for example, for there to be much more engagement from employers who can help local school corporations design what he calls “demand-driven curriculum” focused on skills that lead to higher paying jobs and offer the potential for advancement. Those employers would also offer apprenticeships and internships that could lead to fulltime employment.

State Rep. Heath VanNatter, a Republican from Kokomo, is a supporter. VanNatter is a home builder who learned his craft in high school, attending the Kokomo Area Career Center,  where he learned building construction and design.

“We actually built a house as part of the coursework,” VanNatter said. “That’s how I learned the business I’m in today.”  

Pence’s plan calls for an additional $18 million to be devoted to vocational education over the next two years. That’s on top of the $103 million already in his proposed education budget to be spent on vocational training in the state’s high schools.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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