11 ideas to boost workforce development in Indiana, as proposed by legislators

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Members of the Indiana General Assembly, faced with a shortage of skilled workers to fill some available jobs in the state, have proposed myriad bills this session aimed at tackling the issue.

House Speaker Brian Bosma and other leaders estimate the state spends more than $1 billion annually on workforce training programs but believe the system is inefficient and needs an overhaul.

Some ideas already have the support of Gov. Eric Holcomb, such as a proposal from Reps. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and Holli Sullivan, R-Evansville, to sunset all of the state’s workforce programs and evaluate which ones are working and which aren’t.

Others are a little more unusual and could be harder to pass both chambers. Bills from Sen. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, include one that would incentivize businesses to raise their minimum-wage workers’ pay. Another would add a fifth year of high school for seniors who wish to complete technical training and graduate with an associate’s degree or certificate.

Said Bosma of the ideas: “Those are Senate [President Pro Tem David] Long’s problems, not mine.”

Bosma said improving the system is going to take time and likely would include implementing several strategies.

“It’s definitely a work in progress,” Bosma said. “We aren’t going to pass some program and say, ‘OK, we’re done.' This is an ongoing effort to improve the state of life for Hoosiers.”

Here is a roundup of the ideas that have been proposed so far—and their chances of passage. There could be other ideas that pop up as legislation is amended throughout the session:

Direct corporate income tax revenue to workforce training programs: Legislators say they hear cries from the businesses that they want their tax dollars to fund training programs. So one idea, contained in House Bill 1002 from Huston and Sullivan, is to segregate corporate gross income tax into a training fund. Bosma said it would ensure “there’s a box around those taxes rather than falling into the great black hole” that is the state’s general fund. That way, he said, there are “direct lines between employers’ taxes and the training that’s being received.” It’s unclear how popular this idea is. Holcomb told IBJ that he “want[s] to learn more about it” and find out if it would have other implications to the budget.

Sunset all workforce development programs: Another idea proposed in HB 1002 is to put a clock on all (or a good many) of the state’s voluntary workforce programs while the state reviews them to determine what's working, what's not, and where funding should be directed in the future. The programs would be phased out as of July 1, 2019, so the state would have the current session and next budget session to make the final decisions about what would be funded. Deciding the future of some of these programs, which fall under several state agencies, will likely fall mostly to budget writers next year. This has a strong chance of passage, as it is supported by both Bosma and Holcomb. Of the plan, Holcomb said, “When the books close, we better know what’s working and not working.”

Link students with employers: Yet another idea contained in HB 1002 is to allow high school students to opt into a database that would allow them to connect with employers in their own communities who are looking for workers. “Students can do something similar for college acceptance and they get inundated with applications,” Bosma said. “We’d like to bring that same kind of attention to local employers.” Bosma said this would allow high school students to get a better handle on what kinds of jobs they would be qualified for right out of high school, or perhaps after some training.

Indiana Economic Development Corp. training grant: This would create a new training grant fund that is “employer-driven,” according to Bosma. “This is something employers have been asking for. Government doesn’t always do such a great job. We’re going to bring the experts to the table.” The fund, which would be run by IEDC, would “provide money for grants to eligible employers that incur costs or expenses for training programs that allow their employees or prospective employees in Indiana to attain a work-related degree, certification, or credential.” This idea is also contained in HB 1002.

Expand Workforce Ready Grant Program: A couple of measures would expand the Workforce Ready Grant program created by Holcomb last year. One measure, contained in HB 1002, would expand the eligibility for high school students, or younger people, who are interested in applying for one of the governor’s new grants, which will pay for students to receive credentials in certain high-wage, high-demand fields. Bosma said younger high school graduates can’t access those grant funds until they’re independent from their families, as determined by the federal FAFSA filing. He wants to change that so that they can apply. Eligibility would also be expanded to people who already have a certificate or degree but want to change careers, although preference would be given to those with no credentials. Another measure, contained in Senate Bill 136, expands the types of programs that would qualify for grants. The bill provides that programs determined to be eligible by the state for the grant “may not be limited to programs offered by a post-secondary educational institution.” This could open the grant to students who want to pursue private or not-for-profit programs.

Provide tax credits to employers who raise worker pay: This bill would reward businesses with tax credits when they raise pay for their minimum-wage workers. Ruckelshaus’ bill would provide a credit against state tax liability for employers of minimum-wage workers that give raises to their workers after those workers complete a training program that would improve their education level or skills. The idea is contained in Senate Bill 15. Bosma sounded skeptical about this idea, but Ruckelshaus has two other Republican authors on the bill, which signifies it has a decent amount of support. The chairman of the committee that would hear the bill, Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, did not reply to IBJ’s request for comment about whether he supports it.

Create a fifth year of high school for kids to pursue careers: This is an idea to “integrate the community college system into the K-12 system.” Ruckelshaus said he is “very concerned about student debt in America” and wanted to give kids good career options without them needing to go to college. Students would take aptitude testing in middle school to learn what jobs or careers they might be interested in and how much they pay. Then they would receive training for those programs in high school, including participating in an internship or work-based learning so that they would be able to graduate high school with an industry certificate. A student who wanted to take it further could participate in a one-year intensive program after senior year that would allow them to get an associate’s degree. Ruckelshaus’ idea would require intense partnerships with the community college system, he said, and the fifth year of high school would be paid for by savings through that system if fewer people enroll traditionally. State Sen. Dennis Kruse, R- Auburn, joined Ruckelshaus as an author to the bill, Senate Bill 157, which lends it a better chance of passage out of the Senate. Kruse controls the education committee where the bill was sent.

Expand the power of the State Workforce Innovation Council: Boots’ bill, Senate Bill 282, would expand the power and role of a federally required state body which current serves in an advisory function. According to the Legislative Services Agency, “the SWIC currently serves as the state advisory body required under several federal workforce and education laws.” The bill would expand the SWIC to allow it to approve workforce training and apprenticeship funds.

Incentives for employers who hire those addicted to drugs: House Bill 1134, authored by Rep. Steven Davisson, R-Salem, would create a program to help employers who hire individuals qualified for employment but who have failed an initial drug screening. It would allow the employer to hire such individuals if they agree to participate in a drug education and addiction treatment program. It would also allow the Department of Workforce Development to create incentives for businesses that participate in the program.

Require computer science: Senate Bill 172, offered by State Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Centerville, would require that all high schools offer to their students a computer science course as an elective option. The bill also creates a fund that would award grants to those who implement teacher professional development programs for training in teaching computer science.

Expand eligibility for 21st Century Scholar, Pell grants: State Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, said he plans to file a bill that would expand the eligibility of the state’s 21st Century Scholarship Program so that students would be able to use these grants to pay for nontraditional credential or certificate programs. Eckerty also proposes studying whether the state could allow students to use federal Pell grants in a more flexible fashion so they could pursue nontraditional education programs. The details of this bill are unclear as it has not been filed yet. Eckerty said it would be listed as Senate Bill 50.

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