House speaker seeks jobs panel, preschool funding

Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma plans to spearhead efforts to create a new statewide jobs council and give families scholarships so children can attend preschool as part of an agenda focused on fighting Indiana's stubborn unemployment rate by closing the state's "skills gap."

The Indianapolis Republican laid out the details of the House Republican agenda for the first time Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press. Republican and Democratic leaders have long talked about training Indiana residents to fill advanced manufacturing and high-skill jobs that are already available in the state, but the details of how they achieve that goal are only now being released.

Indiana's unemployment rate has hovered, stubbornly, around 8 percent over the last year, even as Indiana-based companies say they have plenty of jobs available. The "skills gap" — the metaphorical chasm between the skills those jobs require and the training Hoosiers have received at school and in previous jobs — is something new Gov. Mike Pence brought up throughout the campaign.

It's also an area where leaders in every state are competing to find more work for their residents, Bosma said.

"There's no doubt that the overarching issue of this session will be workforce development and aligning our workforce training system, from kindergarten through doctorate, with available and projected jobs within the state," Bosma said.

The 15-member Indiana Career Council would be led by the governor and lieutenant governor and gather the heads of the state agencies, Ivy Tech Community College, and other leaders in the education and business communities to study the state's workforce training programs and available jobs.

The panel would meet throughout the year and report back to the General Assembly in November with changes to the state's education and jobs training systems that would get Hoosiers employed in jobs already available in the state.

Bosma said he talked with executives from Arcelor Mittal on Tuesday who have jobs at their northwest Indiana mill that pay $120,000 but lack applicants with the skills necessary to fill them. And there are plenty more jobs like that, he said, pointing to an estimate that there are 2.4 "STEM" (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs available for every unemployed state resident.

House Republicans will also seek $7 million a year to run a two-year pilot program giving scholarships to low-income families to cover the cost of pre-school. Early childhood education was a key theme in the governor's race last year, and Bosma pointed out that Indiana has one of the lowest enrollment rates for 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool.

"We're seeing kids who show up for kindergarten and first grade who are ill-prepared to succeed and who are unable to meet the read-at-third-grade requirement or many of the other goals we have for students," he said. "We have one of the highest percentages in the nation in the portion of kids at 3 and 4 who are not enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs."

The money would pay up to $6,800 per child for 1,000 children to attend private programs and establish the Early Learning Advisory Committee to evaluate the program and report back to the state's Division of Family Resources.

Pence has championed both these issues, early childhood education and jobs training, but has not formally said yet how he will accomplish either goal. Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said last week he was carrying Pence's measure to create nine regional works councils around the state.

The new governor has yet to say how he would improve early childhood education, but that and other details of his first-year agenda are expected to be rolled out in his first State of the State address next week.

The House Republican plan follows on the heels of departing Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White's proposal to launch a public-based preschool program for half of the city's 3- and 4-year-olds.

Bosma said he sees room for both private and public answers to the quandary but said the state should try a modest, private-based pilot program before making any broad decisions.

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