House, Senate agree on workforce changes, but critics say they don’t go far enough

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Indiana House and Senate leaders have finally agreed on how to move forward on their plan to revamp the state’s workforce development system this year—but many involved said they were disappointed the changes don’t go further.

The legislators have scrapped some of their bolder ideas, such as redirecting corporate income tax revenue to pay for workforce programs and sunsetting all workforce programs starting in 2019 to force lawmakers to decide which ones to retire and which ones to keep around.

Instead, the major change this year is the creation of a new board called the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, a group of 21 state officials, business leaders and advocates to advise Gov. Eric Holcomb on talent development and workforce needs and “conduct a systematic and comprehensive review, analysis and evaluation of” state funds—and direct state agencies to make any changes necessary.

That group will replace the existing State Workforce Innovation Council group that has 43 members. The group is federally required, but Sen. Doug Eckerty, R-Yorktown, a council member, said the Holcomb administration has gotten the green light to recompose it into the new board.

“It’s a fine organization," Eckerty said. "The last several years since I’ve been there, it has been an organization that essentially listens to and receives reports from various agencies. We don’t take any action. We need to start taking some action.”

Eckerty said a smaller group will allow more action to be taken.

The legislators announced the changes to the bills in conference committee meetings Thursday afternoon—one week before the session is supposed to end for the year. They'll file the formal agreements Monday, making them eligible for final votes in both the House and Senate.

The major workforce-related bills, House Bill 1002 and Senate Bill 50, also contain some smaller changes, such as lowering the age that people will be able to receive the state’s workforce ready grants, and allowing high school students to more easily connect with employers.

But some said they were disappointed the Legislature didn’t go further to change the system, considering it was billed as the top legislative priority of the session.

“The Indiana Manufacturers Association is disappointed that the governor and General Assembly appear poised to make no substantive change on workforce again this year,” said Brian Burton, president and CEO of the Indiana Manufacturers Association, in a written statement to IBJ. "Our members are telling us that a lack of skilled workers is the number one barrier to continued growth in Indiana.

"Other states are making bold moves in this arena and our members have noticed Indiana’s inaction—we need Indiana to step up and send a message to the employer community that their concerns are important and that they intend to make the system employer-driven now.”

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, said over her 12 years in the Legislature, “every two or three years we have a new, improved renovation of DWD.”

“I can’t really for the life of me look at what’s gone on in here and think we’re accomplishing anything different,” Tallinn said. “I can’t understand how this new board is going to suddenly solve the problems. It doesn’t seem to be me that we’re really doing anything different."

But Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said while he understood people’s frustrations and believed Tallinn’s comments were “dead on,” ultimately “the governor has to own comprehensively the workforce development program.”

“We tried the words on the paper a lot,” Huston said. “It gets down to execution. I think the administration believes this is their best pathway to success. They’re willing to own it."

In a statement to IBJ about the progress on the workforce bills, Holcomb said “we’re going to advance workforce legislation that will empower Indiana’s entrepreneurs and job creators like never before.”

The governor did not address observers’ critiques that the system could add more bureaucracy instead of streamlining things the way many legislators said they wanted.

“We’ll provide what Indiana’s employers from every sector have been asking for—tools that will help them skill up Hoosiers for high-demand, high-wage jobs right now,” Holcomb said. "To accomplish that, we need legislation this year that helps us assess our current workforce programs, align them better with the needs of real employers, and ensures our programs are accessible and easy to use for both employees and employers."

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