News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 28, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Never truer: Knowledge vital to narrowing ‘skills gap’

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The pillar at the gates of Faber College in the movie “Animal House” bore a wise motto, despite its tongue-in-cheek intent …

Knowledge is good.

Likewise, studying pays off. Considering a full range of viewpoints enlightens.

Earlier this month in this column space, we shined light on Indiana’s “skills gap” — a predicament in which the qualifications of available workers don’t match the available jobs. A team of Tribune-Star reporters and photographers studied the situation, talked with dozens of people working in the trenches, and delivered their findings in a comprehensive three-day series published this week.

Some sources see the skills-to-jobs mismatch from the same view as Gov. Mike Pence, legislators and business lobbyists. For Indiana to retain its existing companies (especially manufacturers) and attract new employers, the skills of the workforce must significantly improve. Indiana Chamber of Commerce statistics say 930,000 Hoosiers lack the basic skills to perform 21st-century jobs. Manufacturers see a “moderate to severe” shortage of qualified workers. So, a handful of state initiatives — including the creation of a 15-member, governor-led Indiana Career Council — are under way as remedies.

Any sound commitment to bolster education helps. Pence’s push for enhanced high school career and vocational training can change lives and help solidify the economy. Technical training and retraining programs for adults and prudent state investment in higher education do the same thing.

Knowledge is good, indeed.

But the new Career Council also should pay attention to all the insights of folks the Trib-Star reporters met and interviewed, even if those people view the skills gap differently than state officials and the business lobby. Some pointed out character problems of job applicants that government programs can’t fix and schools shouldn’t have to absorb. Others insisted many companies’ hiring standards are too high for the low wages they offer, while also failing to provide job training. And, trade unions pointed out that their apprentice programs develop the skills needed by the construction industry and should be emulated in manufacturing.

Any Career Council skills gap plan of attack should take all of those viewpoints into account.

Despite their diverse positions, several people interviewed for the Trib-Star skills gap series made one similar, troubling observation. Too many Hoosiers lack “soft skills” for the workplace. That’s a polite way of saying they don’t understand the necessity of showing up for work on time, getting along with co-workers, behaving appropriately, wearing suitable clothes, conducting a job interview and preparing a resume.

Some called it the “work ethic gap.”

Families — not schools or state councils — bear the responsibility for that gap.

“I don’t know if today’s parents are setting examples of business dress or timeliness,” Darby Scism, interim director of Indiana State University’s Career Center, told Trib-Star reporter Lisa Trigg.

A teacher, professor, instructor, supervisor or boss can tell someone, “You need to show up for work, and be there on time.” But people who never saw an adult in their households living up to that standard may not comprehend its importance until they’ve been fired once. Or twice. Or three times. Maybe they never appreciate those “soft skills” and settle down on the wrong side of the gap.

That said, the skills gap doesn’t account for all of Indiana’s 8.2-percent unemployment rate. The skills gap amounts to 1.5 to 2 percent of the state’s jobless rate, said Michael Hicks, director of Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, and that includes people who may have dropped out of the labor force, he added. The Great Recession, which shrank demand for goods and services, contributed mightily to the stubborn unemployment situation.

Still, the skills gap remains a “huge problem,” Hicks said, “not so much because it is bigger than typical (it is), or that it is afflicting us when the unemployment rate is otherwise high (it is), but because there is such a miserable track record with alleviating the skills gap.”

Reversing the situation is a tall task. A multitude of ideas should guide the state’s actions — from business leaders to economists, workers, teachers, college recruiters, union trainers, workplace analysts, job counselors, social workers and, yes, parents. Leaving anyone out creates another gap, a knowledge gap. And, as stated earlier, knowledge is good. Let’s utilize all of it.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or