Amanda Cramer wanted to learn something new.
But more importantly, the 27-year-old wanted to provide for herself and her 3-year-old daughter. So Cramer registered this fall for welding classes at Ivy Tech Community College Northeast.
“I searched online for jobs,” she said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “I saw the income was more” for welders than for some other jobs.
Demand is also strong. Cramer’s research turned up numerous job openings for certified welders.
Welding is one of 12 occupations considered critical to manufacturing’s growth in northeast Indiana, according to results released last week from a local advanced manufacturing study. The jobs list – which includes machining, cabinetmaking and bookkeeping – could inspire others looking for promising professions.
The study’s results also could guide institutions, including Ivy Tech, in deciding which classes to offer.
This region’s economy depends heavily on the manufacturing sector. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, which commissioned the study, wanted to learn more about advanced manufacturing operations here.
Advanced manufacturing – which typically relies on robotics and other computerized systems – pays more than factory assembly line work. Economic development officials want to increase average annual income because it’s become the most important measurement for the region’s progress. The statistic reflects the quality of jobs created in the region, not just the number of jobs.
The region’s per capita income for all jobs was $35,509 last year. But average earnings for northeast Indiana’s steelworkers are $63,979 this year. The region’s auto workers earn $69,969 on average this year. And the area’s medical devices industry workers earn $58,979 on average.
Despite their goals for the region, researchers were surprised to discover that jobs most critical to northeast Indiana’s existing manufacturers aren’t necessarily highly skilled, said John Stafford, who worked on the study. He’s the former director of the Community Research Institute at IPFW, which prepared the report.
The study also produced a list of the 10 most critical occupations for the region’s technology engineering cluster. That list is much heavier on computer-related skills – the kind that can lead to better-paying manufacturing jobs.
The researchers relied on Economic Modeling Specialists International projections to identify manufacturing subsectors expected to grow over the next decade.
Stafford cautioned that the two lists are only a starting point. Officials should use information gleaned from conversations with northeast Indiana’s employers to marry research results with real-world experience.
“Don’t take this analysis as the total story,” he said.
Also, the lists have a limited life span. Even after getting a dose of reality, they wouldn’t be reliable five years from now, Stafford said.
The data give educators some direction, however, in the kinds of skills northeast Indiana employers need workers to have.
The challenge is getting people interested in enrolling in those classes.
“You can tell an institution like an IPFW or an Ivy Tech … that this looks like what we need, but if they don’t have the demand side of it, they can’t support the program,” Stafford said.
John Walter, dean of Ivy Tech’s School of Technology, is concerned about soft enrollment for some classes.
“We have empty seats,” he said. “And yet, I have employers knocking on my door saying they need workers.”
Most of Ivy Tech’s technology students already have jobs and are adding to their skills, Walter said. The community college’s data show that more than 60 percent of Technology School students are ages 25 and older.
Younger students present an opportunity for technical schools to increase enrollments.
Ivy Tech’s student affairs staff visits high schools to talk to students, principals, guidance counselors and others about career options. The hope is that those who choose not to pursue a four-year degree will find an attractive option among the course offerings.
Katy Silliman, executive director of the Northeast Indiana Fund, which is under the Regional Partnership’s umbrella, said officials aren’t sending the message that everyone needs a bachelor’s degree.
But, Silliman said, everyone needs some post-high school training to qualify for a well-paying job.
Officials want to make this region a talent magnet. If the region’s workforce is well trained, employers offering good jobs in advanced manufacturing will move or expand here, she said.
Stafford calls it a chicken-and-egg situation.
Which comes first? A local workforce trained to fill high-skilled jobs? Or local employers that need high-skilled workers?
He isn’t sure. But he knows that workers who have in-demand skills aren’t going to wait around for employers to move into the area. Talented professionals will leave northeast Indiana if good jobs aren’t available here, he said.
Cramer, the welding student, doesn’t mind being the only female in the class.
“I’m tough,” she said, smiling as she raised her arms as if to flex her muscles.
The Fort Wayne woman, who is engaged to be married, said she definitely plans to pursue a job in welding. The profession pays about $16 an hour in Indiana, according to data provided by Ivy Tech.
Stafford said the advanced manufacturing report’s results shouldn’t limit the subjects students can pursue. But the data can be a useful tool in choosing a career.
“You want to give people information to make good decisions,” he said. “And realistic decisions.”