Rising star in GOP recasts job agency: New chief uses secret shoppers, dress code to shake up state’s work force development

Indiana Department of Workforce Development Commissioner Ronald Stiver says the world is flat, with the United States no longer having mountainous advantages over other nations. And Stiver knows Hoosiers must prepare for it to get even flatter.

“You’re talking to the converted,” Stiver said. “I believe in the 21st century, the major lever for economic development will be work-force development.”

Stiver, 31, is reorganizing DWD with the new flat world in mind. He envisions an agency that moves beyond doling out unemployment checks and the occasional training grant for displaced auto workers. To that end, he’s reorganizing DWD’s 1,100 employees and attempting to wring the most out of his $175 million annual operating budget.

Thomas Friedman’s book “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century” is Stiver’s favorite reference manual. It argues that in today’s global business environment, minds, not muscle, are what matter and that sociological and technological changes are leveling the global playing field.

As modern communications technology connects the globe, highly trained engineers and programmers in Delhi or Dublin can compete every day with folks in San Francisco or Indianapolis, according to Friedman.

Other nations’ capacity for research, engineering and programming is increasing exponentially. According to Friedman, education and innovation are all that can keep the United States ahead of the curve. But our competitive advantage shrinks smaller every day.

How well Indiana wrestles with these forces will help determine its economic future, Stiver believes. That’s why his DWD overhaul aims squarely at the center of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ best-known campaign pledge: job and income growth.

To achieve it, Stiver is putting a premium on information. Some data is already wellknown, he said, such as the fact that percapita income in Indiana is only 87 percent of the national average. Or that, despite the national economic recovery, Indiana remains 45,000 jobs off its peak, leaving the state’s unemployment rate at 4.6 percent.

To improve those figures, he said, DWD must zero in on what’s happening at the local level. The problems of wealthy Hamilton County, which enjoys just 2.9-percent unemployment, are very different from those of Grant County, which is staggering under a 7.5-percent unemployment rate-the highest in the state.

The solutions will be just as diverse. For skills-training money, Stiver has carved Indiana into 11 distinct regions. Each is based on traffic, housing and employment patterns. After DWD spends $3 million to study the needs of every area, the regions will compete against one another for DWD’s 20 million remaining training dollars.

“The resources are too scarce not to spend them in a return-on-investment manner,” Stiver said.

Better data lead to better decisions. For example, just about every area has a scarcity of registered nurses, Stiver said. But the reasons behind the nurse shortage aren’t the same everywhere. In some places, not enough classrooms are available. In others, high retirement rates or quality-of-life issues are at the root.

“[Data] has to be current to help drive policy decisions and have people understand the choices that they have to make,” said John Krauss, director of the Indiana University Center for Urban Policy and the Environment. “There’s an understanding that data is something that will get you to the next mile post, rather than to reflect where you’ve been.”

Stiver’s overarching goal is to make Indiana’s work-force a selling point. Aligning closely with the Indiana Economic Development Corp., DWD’s efforts at work-force supply will dovetail with IEDC’s attempts to increase demand.

These days, businesses expect tax incentives and infrastructure improvements when they seek to expand or move across state lines. Since quality employees are the foundation of any firm’s success, managers want to know they’re available in abundance.

“When companies come knocking on your door, one of the first questions they ask you is the trained work-force question,” Krauss said. “Companies want a good rate of return. People want a good quality of life. If [companies] can’t get a good return back on investing their resources, they go somewhere else. If they can, they will stay here, and they will attract other similar investments.”

Before Daniels took office, DWD and IEDC’s predecessor, the Department of Commerce, also attempted to tackle these issues. But Indiana Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Workforce Development Policy David Holt said their efforts were largely independent.

“Before, they just didn’t talk very much. And they had rivalry for what they were trying to accomplish for the state,” he said. “By partnering, that’s only doing one thing: creating efficiency.”

Enhanced information-gathering and strategic planning aren’t all Stiver has in mind for his reorganization. He also wants DWD to improve its interaction with the public.

Sprinkled around Indiana, DWD operates 27 Work One centers. Besides distributing unemployment checks and providing skills training, they line up job opportunities, placing 99,000 people annually. Stiver is attempting to increase employee professionalism across the board.

He instituted a dress code and is introducing unannounced “secret shoppers” to check his agency’s service to the public. Employees now must receive annual performance reviews, some for the first time in over a decade.

The approach stems directly from Stiver’s corporate experience. Born and raised on the south side of Indianapolis, Stiver earned his undergraduate degree from DePauw University and an MBA from Duke University. His professional career has largely been with Eli Lilly and Co., where a fast-track path led him to become brand strategy manager for Lilly’s $980 million U.S. Osteoporosis Business Unit.

He joined Daniels’ team during the campaign. Although Stiver is still far from a household name, he’s a rising star in the Indiana Republican Party, said Indiana Legislative Insight

Publisher Ed Feigenbaum.

“He’s a guy they’ve given a lot of freedom and latitude to and are expecting a lot from,” Feigenbaum said. “My guess is, he’s bound for much bigger and better things than DWD.”

Regardless of political affiliation, Stiver is likely to get whatever help he needs to tackle the task of modernizing Indiana’s work force, political observers say. The stakes are too high for partisanship to intrude.

“Everyone will tell you, Democrats and Republicans alike, that they hope he’s correct in this approach,” Feigenbaum said. “Nobody wants to see failure. You can say what you want about the way things worked under previous administrations. But if there’s a way to improve things, I think everyone would be grateful.”

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