Opinion and Forefront

SHEPARD: Session gave training huge shot in arm

June 1, 2013

Randall ShepardThough issues like Medicaid expansion and reducing the income tax were most visible during the recent legislative session, the General Assembly may have also set the stage for substantial future shifts in how Indiana goes about producing a work force prepared for the 21st century economy.

To be sure, the session reached significant decisions on how to shape the education enterprises on which state government spends more than 60 percent of its budget. The most visible of these decisions, of course, involved the level of support for universities and public schools. The new budget brings us back to the levels that prevailed before the Great Recession and indeed adds money beyond those sums.

Aside from the appropriation totals, the budget also places into law further measures focusing on such things as graduation rates and credit transferability.

The Legislature likewise acted on broader education fronts that should help build the state’s health and its economic health. It committed $25 million to the new Indiana Biosciences Research Institute as well as funds for the expansion of medical education.

Just behind these prominent commitments is the Legislature’s embrace of two proposals by Gov. Mike Pence aimed at improving work force preparation and job placement. These were a central theme of the Pence campaign.

The General Assembly approved the governor’s plan to create new Indiana Works Councils. These will be regional bodies charged with developing alternative career, technical or vocational education curricula for high school students that will lead to industry certifications or associate degrees or other paths to high-demand jobs available in the various regions of the state.

The hope is that tailoring education to the differences in our regional economies will be more successful if carried out in the regions themselves.

The Legislature has provided $6 million to support the work of these councils. They will be staffed by the Education Roundtable, which has earned a solid reputation over time.

This will be a substantial undertaking. While projects with these objectives exist in some places in Indiana, the new design represents quite a step upward in this field. Its success could turn out to be a major accomplishment of the Pence years.

Closely aligned with this initiative is legislation creating the Indiana Career Council. Its charge is to develop a plan to integrate more closely the dozens of programs and institutions in the state’s education, job skills development and career training system.

The need to realign our existing but fractured work-force efforts was identified recently by a commission chaired by Jamie Merisotis of Lumina Foundation and Jeff Terp of Ivy Tech, assisted by Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute. Among other things, they emphasized the value of close collaboration between the providers of education and training and the businesses and industries that make decisions about hiring.

Some of our institutions, like the University of Southern Indiana, do a superb job of matching education to the new economy. Their example needs to be emulated.

The proposals of Merisotis and Terp and their colleagues became part of the public discourse during the 2012 campaign season and have now been launched by this new legislation. The urgency the Legislature attaches to this mission is apparent by its directive that the new plan be completed in one year.

There is every reason to believe that Pence and the Legislature have moved us in the right direction. Now is the time for educators and the business community to use these platforms for building a brighter future together.•

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Shepard, Indiana chief justice from 1987 to 2012, is executive in residence at Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute, a research arm within IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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