When Indiana was gripped by the Great Recession almost a decade ago, factories were closing left and right, and state officials were scrambling to get the unemployed back to work.
In August 2009, for example, nine of 11 northeast Indiana counties ranked in the state’s 25 highest unemployment rates. Noble and LaGrange counties reported almost 16 percent and 15 percent, respectively, earning the dubious distinction of having the second and third highest jobless rates in the state.
Since then, the economy has rebounded and jobless rates have plunged. In June, Indiana’s unemployment rate fell below 5 percent. That’s the point when people start talking about full employment – or everyone working who wants to be.
State officials have had to change their approach to workforce development. The challenge now is to prepare students and workers for the jobs of the future. They say the approach holds up even if we enter another recession, something some people are predicting but state workforce officials declined to speculate about.
Steve Braun, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, told The Journal Gazette this month that his department needs to link employers with educators to ensure they’re teaching skills employers desire.
Braun, who has been in the job since November 2014, said his department is focused on creating talent pipelines to fill 1 million projected jobs in the next 10 years. That includes 650,000 jobs that will open up with retirements and 350,000 new jobs, he said.
Braun’s department, which also manages unemployment benefits, works with colleges including Ivy Tech Community College and K-12 public education leaders on course content.
The five areas with the greatest demand are industrial maintenance; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; plumbing; computer numerical control machining; and welding, according to a Northeast Indiana Works official.
Northeast Indiana Works oversees 11 WorkOne career centers in the region. The state has 12 regions, each with a full-time WorkOne office.
Joe Frank, the Department of Workforce Development spokesman, said WorkOne Northeast is seen as a model.
And state officials, who distribute federal workforce development dollars, are trying to make sure the region can afford to continue to do it right.
On Feb. 17, officials named 13 recipients of $11 million in Skill UP Indiana! grants. The list included northeast Indiana, which will receive more than $1.34 million to improve workers’ abilities in the advanced manufacturing, construction and skilled trades sectors.
Braun described the Skill UP Indiana! program as one of the most important ways his department is trying to prepare workers for jobs.
Gary Gatman, Northeast Indiana Works’ executive vice president of strategic initiatives, said his office has been talking to employers to get more details. If they need welders, for example, what kind of welders?
"That’s quite an evolution in our program that we’re designing training to meet those specific needs of employers," he said.
Plans call for training to be offered at the region’s five Career and Technical Education centers throughout the 11-county area. Indiana’s Region 3 comprises Adams, Allen, DeKalb, Grant, Huntington, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, Wabash, Wells and Whitley counties.
Almost 500 people in the region – including high school students – are expected to enroll in the training courses, with about 400 projected to complete them and earn at least one industry-recognized credential.
Ivy Tech Northeast officials also are partners in providing classes.
Jerrilee Mosier, chancellor of the local campus, said Ivy Tech has always tried to align with industry needs. But the community college has made a subtle shift.
During the Great Recession, she said, instructors tried to equip individuals with the updated skills needed to get jobs. Current efforts are about finding what industries need and making sure students have learned those skills before graduating.
Each Ivy Tech program has an industry advisory board that keeps the college up-to-date on new technology, equipment and skills needed for jobs, Mosier said. That helps keep course content on track.
Cathy Maxwell, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said every advisory board meets at least twice a year.
"We’re constantly listening to what they have to say and respond to them as quickly as possible," she said.
The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership collaborated with Northeast Indiana Works to submit Region 3’s grant request, which included more than $400,000 in matching money.
Regional Partnership officials created the Big Goal Collaborative, which calls for increasing the percentage of the region’s residents with high-quality degrees or credentials to 60 percent by 2025.
That would almost double the current level of less than 35 percent, according to the economic development organization. High-quality degrees include risk management and insurance; engineering; and information technology, spokeswoman Courtney Tritch said.
Officials believe the best way to attract more employers offering high-paying jobs is a highly trained workforce. That includes both training existing residents and attracting new, skilled workers by making northeast Indiana a more attractive place to live.
Aligning employers and educators isn’t a short-term strategy that works only when unemployment is low, Commissioner Braun said.
"We’ll be in a better position when the next recession hits," he said, "if we prepare well by building skills."