The numbers are daunting.
According to Gov. Mitch Daniels' economic development plan "Accelerating Growth," Indiana ranks 35th out of 50 states for the proportion of its population with at least an associate's degree. Worse, it ranks 47th for bachelor's degrees.
A full million Hoosiers "lack the basic skills necessary for 21st century employment," according to the plan. That's about a sixth of the state's population.
High-tech leaders are increasingly focused on reversing the trend. They know the availability of a skilled work force is the foundation of any innovative enterprise. That's why "Accelerating Growth"-and technology leaders in general these days-are just as concerned about education as they are about tax abatements and infrastructure improvements.
"The problem is not going away. It's just getting worse," said Mike Fritsch, chairman of technology trade association Techpoint. "We need to concentrate on that problem and work on getting more people interested in technology careers."
Last year, Daniels launched a $23 million "Strategic Skills Initiative" meant to regionally redesign the state's training programs. The "Accelerating Growth" plan proposes taking the effort even fur- ther through a series of new education initiatives.
Some, under the title "Existing Workforce," are geared toward people who are already working, but whose skills are eroding. The "Emerging Workforce" elements of the plan are geared toward students still in the K-12 system. And the "Engaged Workforce" section aims to reverse the brain drain by attracting educated Hoosiers back home.
It's not just competition from our neighbors that has state leaders worried. They're also increasingly concerned about rivalry with emerging nations like China and India, said Indiana Department of Workforce Development Commissioner Andrew Penca.
"The criticality of the status, level and quality of our work force each day that goes by becomes more a part of [everyone's] conversation," he said. "And as we continue to move forward in the world economy, the battle for talent will only increase."
That global trend has been the basis of many doom-and-gloom predictions, and most stem from the impression that American students aren't keeping pace, particularly in math and science.
"If you look at the worldwide emphasis on education, one of the reasons the U.S. is falling behind, if you go to China or India, you'll see the big emphasis they have on technology at the K through 12 area, and it makes a big difference in the level of student they produce," Fritsch said. "If you ask a young child there what they want to be when they grow up, the typical answer will be an engineer, because there's an emphasis on more technology-based education at a younger level."
But Fritsch suggested Hoosiers have some reason for optimism. Not every future job will be lost to overseas competition. But to earn spots in the work force of tomorrow, Hoosiers must offer skills their counterparts elsewhere lack.
"One of the things that we need to do is educate people that the jobs aren't going away, they're just changing," Fritsch said. "We must educate students what those jobs are, and change our educational system to keep up with the jobs of the future."
Speeding things up
Daniels' effort starts with retraining adults. "Accelerating Growth" includes a marketing campaign to convince them they should update their skills. It also leans heavily on the state's community college system, pushing for accelerated associate's degree programs that adults can speed through in just 12 months. The key is tailoring programs that fit busy working schedules.
"For [many] working adults, two or three nights a week just won't work out for them," said Carol D'Amico, vice president of Ivy Tech Community College. "That's too much of a commitment. They'd rather come to campus once a week, spend longer, and do work online in the off time."
To that end, "Accelerating Growth" targets creation of more virtual classrooms and training tools. It also addresses the foremost concern of many adults reluctant to pursue educational opportunities: their pocketbooks. The plan would give employers state tax credits for subsidizing up to half the tuition of their employees' associate's degrees. Daniels even has ideas on the drawing board to provide lump-sum educational payments through new "Personal Re-employment and Career Advancement Accounts."
"The whole point is, let's all work together to bring Hoosier educational levels up," D'Amico said. "And it's going to take a variety of approaches. It's not a onesize-fits-all solution."
Several of Daniels' work-force ideas begin at a much earlier age. His "Emerging Workforce" plans would align K-12 education with state economic development priorities. They would also modify funding to favor elementary and high schools that achieve results established under a series of new performance measures.
Indiana State Teachers Association Deputy Director Dan Clark raised concerns about how that might affect the overall goal of increasing education generally. He said ISTA favors expanding the population of educated Hoosiers over special efforts to aid the smaller population that's already doing well.
"Clearly, we have to connect education to economic development," Clark said. "But we also have to make sure that all children get an opportunity for a great education. And we ought to find a way to make those two strategies compatible."
The third portion of Daniels' education package is called "Engaged Workforce." It notes that 45 percent of Indiana's public post-secondary graduates still leave the state, and that Indiana exports a third more graduates than it retains. The trend is worst among the most technically educated, "Accelerating Growth" notes. Two-thirds of technically trained students, such as engineers and mathematicians, leave the state after graduation.
Daniels aims to attract them back home through the "Hoosier Comeback" program. It offers a long list of services through the Indiana Department of Workforce Development to make returning easy. They include privately underwritten "scholarships" to people who return to start or work for a high-tech business; automatic electronic notification when jobs matching their skills open; and even a tour by Daniels himself to cities with high concentrations of Hoosiers, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix and Denver.
Another emphasis of the plan is preventing students from leaving the state in the first place via internships. Pam Norman, who directs the Indiana INTERNnet program for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, explained that 50 percent of interns accept permanent positions, if offered.
The trick is showing students what's available.
"They don't know what Indiana has to offer. They think of our state as a flat cornfield in the Midwest when, indeed, we've got a lot to offer," Norman said. "The earlier we can get students interested in a career path, the more successful they're going to be."