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Education, health still key issues

March 30, 2009
There are no two ways around it: Indiana is a manufacturing state. And that's something we should be proud of.

But we've got some things to work on. And those things would be education, the overall health of our work force, and productivity and innovation.

At least those are the findings of an industry report card compiled by Ball State University. The results were released March 24 at a breakfast hosted by Conexus Indiana and IBJ.

Key takeaway: Manufacturing still represents a larger portion of our economy than it does in any other state in the union.

BSU economist and IBJ columnist Michael Hicks spoke at the event and noted that Indiana got A's in manufacturing, global position and tax climate, and got a B- in logistics.

Good job. We earned our allowance this year.

But we Hoosiers could only manage C's in benefit costs and productivity and innovation. We got a lowly D+ in human capital.

Not so good. We may get grounded if we don't improve.

The good news is that the positives still seem to outweigh the negatives ... at least for now. The Report Card noted that Indiana ranks first in the nation in income derived from foreign-owned manufacturers and fifth in reach of foreign investment.

That's the result of those three A's, as well as the hard work of the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

On the downside, while Indiana ranks second among states in Worker's Compensation rates, the state is 28th and 33rd, respectively, in health care premiums and long-term health care costs.

The costs are high because we Hoosiers are generally not in good health. We have lots of smokers and high rates of obesity, among other problems.

It's important that the state—meaning "we the people" more so than ever—get a handle on this one because high benefit costs are one of the few negatives companies see when they look to do business in Indiana.

The good news is that we are starting to recognize this. More and more employers are being proactive and offering wellness plans to employees to bring those costs down. They are also providing incentives for good behavior.

Gov. Mitch Daniels' INShape Indiana plan shows he's with the program. These efforts need to be encouraged and expanded.

On the education front, with rankings of 29th in percentage of the work force with a high school diploma and 42nd in college-educated workers, human capital remains our other huge issue. We're not as smart as we need to be.

But, again, there is good news on this front. In spite of difficult financial times and a tight state budget, the stars seem to be aligning to make real progress here.

By stars, I mean this: new Department of Education chief Tony Bennett is shaking things up on the Indiana education landscape. Like Mitch Daniels when he arrived at the governor's office, Bennett is pushing hard for change. But we Hoosiers are sometimes averse to change.

Bennett is getting resistance on some ideas that would appear to be no-brainers. He wants kids to make up time they miss from school because of snow days. They should. He would also like to deep-six the law that allows teachers' professional-development days to count as school days. I agree: Why should students get credit for days they aren't in class learning?

I hope Bennett will prevail on these and other ideas.

The second star is Carol D'Amico, the former CEO of Conexus. D'Amico changed her role with the organization and is now its senior adviser for education and work-force development.

She has added a role as consultant with the state Department of Education.

She will spearhead its efforts on technical and adult education, career readiness programs, and integration between the state's K-12 and higher education systems.

As an expert in work-force development, D'Amico is in a good position to leverage her connections to help Bennett move the needle on the state's education dashboard.

And make no mistake about it: That needle needs to be moved if Indiana wants to maintain its leadership in manufacturing.

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Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com. 
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