News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 3, 2013

EDITORIAL: Bridging the skills gap

Harsh realities demand action


The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Some causes of a predicament called the “skills gap” boil down to a sobering reality for Hoosiers …

Grand as this land is, we have some issues.

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 exposed and compounded this Achilles’ heel as demand shrank, jobs and whole industries died, and unemployment climbed. 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.

Is that a big deal? Last week, Chrysler announced plans to invest $374 million into transmission manufacturing in central Indiana, creating the largest such 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, told Indianapolis TV station Fox 59 there aren’t enough “people readily available for these positions.”

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 refreshing. It also points to one of a handful of harsh realities Indiana must address.

~ The state must invest heavily in state-of-the-art education, from early childhood through adult career-changers. 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.

As Indiana Chamber President Kevin Brinegar told The Associated Press, “We’ve got arguably almost a million people we need to help right now and the number who annually receive training services from federal and state resources is about 50,000 a year. This is hard stuff, but very important to start somewhere.”

Right now, Gov. Mike Pence is on a statewide tour, promoting his plan to cut Indiana’s already low personal income tax by 10 percent. It would fulfill his centerpiece campaign promise and improve his 2016 presidential candidacy hopes. But it would also reduce state revenue by a half-billion dollars. That’s why fellow Republicans in the Legislature left his tax cut out of their budgets. Education, hit hard by recession-era cuts, needs to grow to meet demand.

~ 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.” Several sources in last week’s Tribune-Star series on the subject said 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.