EDITORIAL: Workforce effort has teeth

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For economic development professionals, the splashy, fun side of the business is the press conferences, where local and state leaders come together to announce a company’s plans to hire hundreds or even thousands of workers.

But the eco-devo experts trying to bulk up central Indiana’s economy for 21st century success know the reality of the business is far more complex. A company with expansion ambitions might never fulfill them if it can’t find the skilled workers it needs.

Or the company might hit its hiring goals, but only by luring away workers from rivals. Or it might achieve them but find the process such a struggle that it vows that the next time it expands, it will do so in another state.

Such are the realities that the new workforce initiative Ascend Indiana aims to tackle head-on—and in a more comprehensive, coordinated fashion than this region ever has attempted.

The effort, rolled out Oct. 25 by the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, is an impressive undertaking that, if successful, will have a huge upside for a region where hiring managers too often wring their hands about talent shortages but do little to solve the problem.

Ascend has a four-pronged approach: working with companies to help them assess and fill their talent needs; helping job-seekers connect with employment and training; building the pipelines that produce skilled workers; and conducting research, consulting and public-policy work.

But as IBJ’s Susan Orr reported Oct. 25, the most critical component is the first. To get rolling, Ascend is providing funding to open a local office of College for America, which helps workers earn degrees through employers’ tuition-reimbursement programs. It’s also working with several employers to tailor training programs to their specific needs.

The employers that benefit will pay for the services. But it’s encouraging that the effort is starting with a robust $7 million in funding, including $5 million from the Lilly Endowment. It also boasts strong leadership in the form of Jason Kloth, the former deputy mayor for education under Greg Ballard, who will eventually preside over a staff of 20 to 30.

Workforce initiatives are notorious for being all talk and little action. But we think the in-the-trenches aspect sets Ascend Indiana apart. This isn’t about convening an army of experts to philosophize. It’s about understanding workforce challenges company by company and devising solutions.

If it all works, the benefits will be enormous on a micro and macro level. More Hoosiers will have the skills to move into high-wage jobs, and that growing supply of skilled workers will embolden more companies to open or expand here.•


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