Stuck in the Middle

By Nick Dmitrovich with input from the National Skills Coalition

At the time of this writing, Indiana is on pace to achieve the highest levels of employment ever recorded in the state’s history. Unemployment levels are almost at three percent, and the state’s leadership is understandably shouting those figures from the rooftops, as they should. That doesn’t mean we’ve addressed all of our workforce challenges. Reaching peak achievement is no reason to suspend effort, and our sleeves should remain rolled up. The challenges we’re facing today are a bit more nuanced then they used to be, as trends have shifted from focusing on the more broadly-defined skills gap to the more refined subject of what experts are calling a “middle-skills gap.”

Middle-skilled careers are aptly named because they fall between education levels necessary to perform one’s job function. Basically, they require education beyond secondary school but not a full four-year college degree. Middle-skilled jobs actually comprise the largest portions of both Indiana’s and America’s labor market overall, and though the state is doing extremely well at getting Hoosiers back to work, many employers are still reporting difficulties in filling their open middle-skilled positions. According to data from the National Skills Coalition (NSC) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2015, 58 percent of jobs in Indiana were middle-skill, but only 47 percent of the state’s workers are trained to the middle-skill level.

“This skills gap keeps the Indiana economy from growing, Indiana employers from hiring, and Indiana residents from improving their job prospects and earning more,” said Brooke DeRenzis, state network director at NSC. “There are many people who want a good job but need more education and training to get on a pathway toward a family supporting middle-skill job.”

Evidently, the state of Indiana’s leadership is taking this employment gap very seriously. Though you might not have heard much about the topic when it was approved just a few weeks ago, Indiana officials have formulated a new bill that is designed to provide free community college to students seeking a certificate in areas that are designated as “high value” fields. Broadly speaking, these fields fall within the industries of advanced manufacturing, building & construction, health sciences, information technology & business technology, and transportation & logistics.

Senate Bill 198, more colloquially referred to as the Workforce Ready Grant, was recently signed into law in Indiana. The bill came to life through a partnership between Governor Eric Holcomb, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, and the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The Indiana Skills2Compete Coalition, which is a bipartisan coalition of state legislators, education policymakers, business, labor and community leaders, is seeking to close the state’s skills gap, also supported the project. Under the terms of the new bill, the state of Indiana will be providing $2 million a year for the grant program.

“Although Indiana’s unemployment rate is near a record low and well below the national average, we currently have a shortage of highly-trained and skilled workers to fill the positions being created,” said State Rep. Mike Braun (R-Jasper), one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 198. “In order to continue positioning Hoosier workers and job creators for success, it’s critical we better align education and training with employer needs. This new law provides funding to Hoosiers pursuing certification in certain fields, while also working to streamline the state’s workforce development programs.”

“Some 55 percent of the state’s projected openings through 2024 will be for middle-skill jobs. Indiana will need to continue to work to skill up its workforce in order to meet that robust demand,” says Caryl Auslander, vice president of education and workforce development at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.

The NSC explained the Workforce Ready Grant will provide last-dollar tuition assistance to all students enrolled in a certificate program leading to a high value field, regardless of financial need. “High value” fields have been defined by the state as those that have “high job placement, high completion rate, high wage, and high demand.”

A large part of the new bill’s intent is also to help adults return to school and gain new skills. Earning a certificate in an in-demand industry not only helps businesses to fill crucial human capital needs, but also allows adults in low-skilled, low-wage jobs to enter into career pathways leading to family-sustaining wages.

It’s interesting to see the state’s legislators are not slowing down in their push to help develop a steady stream of applicants for the job openings of both today and the future, even at a time when the data reflects a time to celebrate. Though more Hoosiers are working today than ever before in the state’s history, there’s no reason to cease workforce development initiatives. In fact, perhaps the time is perfect to continue building them upwards as lawmakers are doing. Unemployment figures don’t represent the quality of staffed careers, merely the volume of staffing.

In its new push to provide educational opportunities for individuals looking to fill in-demand jobs, perhaps what Indiana is really doing is strengthening the employment foundation it’s already so successfully built. Now that more people are working than ever before, it appears now the time has come to augment the work they’re performing. It’s a targeted campaign toward improvement that could produce even higher levels of statewide achievement.