EDITORIAL: Invest in the underemployed

August 27, 2011

As if more evidence were needed to show the economy hasn’t healed from the recession, IBJ’s J.K. Wall reports in this issue that the Indianapolis area has lost nearly all of the few jobs it gained in the brief recovery, and it now lags a number of peer cities in job creation and income growth.

Indianapolis has a lot going for it—from its solid supply of college grads and great transportation network to its remarkably diverse economy. So the metro area will pull out of its funk.

However, while the economy will recover, many workers will not. Tens of thousands are underemployed if not unemployed, and the prospects for many of them returning to working at their potential grows dimmer the longer they’re out of work.

At the lower end of the employment continuum, people lacking high school diplomas and who speak little English face a steep route to landing any well-paying job, ever.

At the upper end are white-collar workers out of jobs long enough to be considered poor risks by employers. Typically managers, technical workers and other office denizens, they’re stigmatized as rusty.

That stigma may be unfair and inaccurate, but it lingers nonetheless. So armies of people find themselves lingering on the sidelines. Reports are even surfacing that some employers have stopped considering applicants out of work for a year or more.

The state should step up attempts to help these people, particularly the white-collar crowd.

A number of programs serve people with minimal education. What seems lacking is help for those without college educations and people who have college degrees but haven’t recently updated their skills.

Local experts say one of the fastest ways for resumes to land in circular files is a lack of recent certifications. Six Sigma and other certifications can make a resume competitive.

In an IBJ op-ed this spring, former Lt. Gov. John Mutz called on the state to create a G.I. bill for the undereducated. The state could create a central office where the Family and Social Services Administration, Ivy Tech Community College and the departments of education and workforce development would be easy to access. Hoosiers would get a voucher to spend on the programs.

Mutz’ adult version of No Child Left Behind would touch the 900,000-plus Hoosiers the Indiana Chamber of Commerce says haven’t finished high school, speak minimal English or work in families earning less than a living wage.

But what if the idea were broadened to include white-collar workers? A voucher for a necessary certification or even to wrap up a college education would pay the state huge dividends.

Pumping resources into the unemployed and underemployed would generate tax revenue from renewed paychecks and greater corporate profits.

But money might not be the most compelling reason to invest in people. The best reason might be restoring their sense of dignity, of having contributed to society.

It’s an idea Gov. Mitch Daniels or his successor should consider.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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