By STAN MADDUX
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Indiana is placing more dollars and trades professionals into schools to help grow a workforce with skills leading to higher wages and higher demand jobs in fields such as agriculture.
Gov. Eric Holcomb on April 30 signed House Enrolled Act 1002 at Owl Manufacturing, a student-led business at Seymour High School. The legislation, supported by Indiana Farm Bureau (INFB), furthers the state’s Next Level program established in 2017 to upgrade the workforce, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.
The new two-year state budget contains an additional $763 million for K-12 education. A sizable portion of those dollars are going to support career and technical education, Holcomb said.
“When I talk to businesses across the state and around the world, the same challenge keeps coming up: Finding enough skilled workers,” he said.
According to INFB, the measure includes classes on farming in the state’s Career Technical Education funding formula. Blair Milo, Indiana’s secretary of Career Connections and Talent, said HEA 1002 also lowers barriers for connecting schools and employers so that what’s taught in classrooms better reflects the skills needed locally.
In rural schools, for example, students with more exposure to vocational training and biosciences can help fill openings related to farming, especially with agriculture relying more on broadband and precision technology for efficiency, she said.
State Rep. Jim Pressel (R-Rolling Prairie) said current and retired professionals in the trades with at least 6,000 hours of experience in their profession were allowed to teach last year due to a lack of teachers certified in vocational education. He said HEA 1002 added a provision that they can teach as long as they haven’t been retired for more than five years, to assure knowledge they’re passing along is up-to-date.
“It gives kids some experience with somebody who’s really had hands-on experience with this,” he said.
Milo said greater emphasis on the workforce in schools just from awareness gives students a better idea of their career options. From the instruction, students also know what to expect in those careers so they’re better prepared for jobs as they change – often from advancements in technology.
“I think there’s still a mindset that agriculture looks the way that it did maybe 50 years or so ago. If you spend some time with many of our leading agbioscience employers, you’ll see there’s a tremendous amount of science and technology behind all of the work they’re doing,” she said.
“When you look at some of the seed technology being incorporated, when you look at some of the technology that’s being utilized throughout the agricultural process, having some insight into how that technology works and being able to troubleshoot some of the issues that come up inevitably with using the technology, it’s imperative for students and adults to have earlier knowledge about what that looks like.”
Additional funding is going for retraining people already earning a paycheck. Some of those extra dollars are for reimbursing employers for job training, which proved last year to be in high demand.
“Because of its popularity the fund ran out of money because so many people were utilizing it, which is exactly what we wanted. It meant this was something that was valuable for our employers to connect up with the workforce they were needing,” Milo said.
There are also funds to compensate individuals for raising their skill levels to obtain a higher wage in an in-demand position. Milo said employers and individuals can apply for job training grants at nextleveljobs.org
Also approved as part of the Next Level program was $1 billion over the next six years for rural broadband extension and other major transportation projects like finishing reconstruction of U.S. Highway 31 and adding a second rail for speeding travel to and from Chicago on the South Shore Railroad commuter line.
Those dollars negotiated by the Governor with the private operators of the Indiana Toll Road are from a portion of last year’s 35 percent increase in tolls on semi trucks. Toll road proceeds are in addition to the $1.2 billion in extra money for roads and other infrastructure over the next 20 years generated from a 10-cent increase in the state’s gasoline tax enacted in 2017.