TERRE HAUTE —
Since being elected to the U.S. Senate last year, Joe Donnelly has continued to wage a personal war against the “skills gap,” the idea that jobs in Indiana and across the country are going unfilled because of too few properly trained workers.
On Wednesday, Donnelly — a Democrat who recently drew praise for working as part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers to pass a short-term federal budget and to temporarily raise the U.S. debt ceiling — reached across the aisle again to join Republican Dean Heller of Nevada, introducing the “Skills Gap Strategy Act.”
In a conference call with Hoosier reporters Wednesday, Donnelly said the measure, if it becomes law, would require the U.S. Department of Labor to develop a “concerted strategy” to tackle the skills gap and to focus on improving employer participation in education and workforce training. Donnelly said, however, “it is not something employers will be forced to do in any way.”
The U.S. Department of Labor is expected to ask employers what the agency needs to do to help reduce the skills gap, Donnelly said. “And we believe there will be strong employee participation.”
The bill is a companion measure to the America Works Act, also co-sponsored by Donnelly. He hopes the two acts together, if passed, would increase the number of available skilled employees and also reduce the state and the nation’s unemployment rate, he said.
The America Works Act is directed at the Department of Education and would direct federal education dollars toward training programs demanded by industry.
While Donnelly has made fighting the skills gap a top priority, not everyone agrees the gap is even real. Some observers, including Peter Cappelli of the University of Pennsylvania, a labor economist, believe the “gap” is the result of companies not paying enough to draw workers and not providing enough training. Paul Krugman, a Princeton economist and New York Times opinion columnist, agrees.
Others, such as the Boston Consulting Group, a management strategy consultancy, report a skills gap among highly skilled workers of between 80,000 and 100,000 workers. A joint survey by Deloitte, a consulting firm, and an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, estimated there are about 600,000 high-skill positions currently unfilled.
Donnelly, in the conference call, said he has traveled all across Indiana and believes the skills gap is real. “We have thousands of jobs that are going unfilled right now in our home state and it is because people don’t have the skills to fill those spots,” he said. One Hoosier company, Jasper Transmission, recently had 25 open spots, Donnelly said. “And they were not able to find the people who had the skills” needed.
When asked whether companies shouldn’t simply train employees themselves, Donnelly compared workforce training to K-12 education, something few doubt the government should provide.
“We have basic functions and obligations as a society,” Donnelly said. “One of them is to be able, as a community, to provide decent and solid education, and I think a part of that” involves good vocational and job skills training, he said.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@