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Cabinet tackles education-to-work pipeline in Indiana


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Farmers sitting on mountains of precision-ag and apps-fed data about their operations may appreciate the task the members of the Indiana Governor’s Workforce Cabinet have ahead of them.

These 21 people too will have to sift through a great deal of information in their task of assessing workforce development programs – which includes schools – and services in Indiana, and directing state agencies to address Hoosier workforce needs. Last week, the new cabinet, established by Senate Bill 50 signed in March by Gov. Eric Holcomb, met for the first time in Indianapolis.

Cabinet Chair Danny Lopez, until recently Holcomb’s deputy chief of staff, led much of the May 1 meeting by asking business leaders on the cabinet about their experiences with hiring and job training in Indiana, as well as educational institutions’ role in meeting employer needs. Indiana’s goal by 2025 is to have 60 percent of working adults up to age 64 holding some sort of postsecondary degree or certification; right now that’s at 42 percent.

Among the frustrations he’s heard from employers is that they can’t find enough skilled employees or those able to do the work, or even pass a drug test.

“That’s not strictly in building trades, it’s not strictly in tech, it’s not strictly in manufacturing or agriculture,” Lopez explained. “I mean, that really does cut across all different industries.”

The challenge for the state, he said, is to create a sense of lifelong learning in its people, and to help workers insulate themselves from the ill effects of a changing economy – such as losing one job and being unable to find another for lack of training.

Within the cabinet are five work teams, explained member Rebecca Schroeder of Albion, who is president of Whiteshire Hamroc, a row crop and swine farm that produces pigs for meat, breeding genetics and biomedical research. These teams are charged with tasks like coming up with a career coaching and navigation system to implement in middle and high schools by the 2019-20 academic year.

Other goals include assessing Indiana’s high school career and tech education and reviewing workforce development programming for return on investment (ROI), ease of use and accessibility; reviewing state and local partnerships for workforce innovation and determining if there are better incentives the state can put in place for better outcomes; and assessing the funding available for education after high school.

“Ag is a pretty diverse workforce,” she said of her role on the cabinet – she is its only ostensibly agricultural member – and the industry has need of skills and talent like any other. “You need everything from people who are still willing to get their hands dirty and work with their backs, all the way through engineers and agronomy specialists.”

Schroeder said she received a call from Lopez saying she was on a short list of state ag people recommended to him, and would she serve? “I thought it sounded like a really interesting cabinet,” she explained. “How often do we have an opportunity to have a voice in the future of education and training programs for an entire state?”

Too, with a son in eighth grade, she said she was intrigued by the coaching idea. “I thought, ‘Gosh, if we come up with some really great things for career coaching and navigation, he could be a direct beneficiary of that.’”

There is a need to create awareness in non-farm students that there are diverse careers in agriculture. Too, Schroeder wants to see the stigma removed from jobs that involve manual labor or entry-level skills that are nonetheless in high demand and pay well. These can either be lifetime work or a stepping-stone to another position.

“Maybe we don’t need everyone to go to college,” she noted. Her hope is to make sure the cabinet and state agencies partnered with it understand the broad needs of agriculture for employees of all education levels – and she is glad to see the group is peopled with business representatives who can provide insight about real-world job requirements.

To that end, she said she has spoken with representatives of other ag, and even non-ag groups in northeastern Indiana, to get their opinions for her participation and let them know “it’s not just all about (what the) pork (sector wants).”

Lopez said right now, Indiana is “sort of enjoying” an exalted status among states as having tremendous growth in jobs, investments, infrastructure and education, but there’s a lack of the right kind of labor to go with the right job, or what he calls “a people challenge.” And that isn’t unique to Indiana.

“There is not a governor in the country who is not grappling with this issue,” he said, adding that understanding what other states are doing relative to their workforce issues will be a big part of the cabinet’s work.

What is valued in this economy, he said, is the ability to be creative and problem-solve. The nature of jobs is changing, and the way we think about work and education and training are changing as well.

Underemployment issues are at work too as the U.S. economy evolves, Lopez explained, and people need to be insulated from disruptions in the economy It is government’s job to help make sure they’re prepared to evolve with the marketplace’s labor needs.

During the meeting, Schroeder told the cabinet that needs in ag are pretty diverse. It still needs people who like working with animals and soil directly, but the explosion of precision agriculture has moved far ahead with tech and data analysis. “The tractors drive themselves now,” she quipped, but pointed out ag still needs people who can maintain and troubleshoot tractor problems as well as new-tech problems.

“We don’t necessarily need to hire those people on the farm level … but we need those supported industries” such as highly technical engineering, she added, pointing to Whiteshire-Hamroc’s need for knowledgeable people who know about ventilation and HVAC to design and service pig housing.

Too, Schroeder said ag businesses and farmers continue to need informed scientists in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). For example, her company raises pigs for biomedical research as well as for pork. “There’s not much in ag that’s not directly linked to STEM.”

The Governor’s Workforce Cabinet is tasked with meeting at least every other month, and these meetings are open to the public, with public comment time allotted. Learn more about it at www.in.gov/dwd/2473.htm

“I’m just really excited, the approach they’re taking,” Schroeder said. “We’ve got an opportunity for agriculture to be at the table.”

2/8/2019