Legislative luncheon tackles workforce development in Boone County

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By Jarred Meeks

Boone County’s greatest need is to attract and develop skilled workers, a Boone County Chamber of Commerce official said at a May 13 luncheon in Lebanon.

To explore possible solutions, the Boone County Chamber of Commerce conducted the legislative luncheon at Lebanon High School to discuss workforce development policies and programs at the federal, state and local levels that could help local businesses attract, develop and retain talent in Boone County.

Mark Fisher, chief policy officer at the Indy Chamber of Commerce, moderated the event. He said the county, even more so than other pockets in Indiana, has experienced exceptional economic development growth, but growing pains accompany growth.

“How do we fill the skills gap?” Fisher said. “And how do we make sure we have a workforce that not only meets today’s needs, but the future needs of our employers?”

According to a metropolitan policy program assembled for central Indiana by the Brookings Institution, a prominent research think tank, central Indiana’s job growth outpaced expected growth and national job growth from 2006 to 2016, as did many peer locations, such as Denver, Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tenn. However, average annual earnings increased only 2.3 percent in central Indiana, compared to 7.3 percent nationwide, the institution found.

U.S. Rep. Susan W. Brooks spoke at the luncheon and said the federal government dedicates considerable effort toward workforce policies because communities throughout the nation struggle to fill positions with talented workers, in part due to the national unemployment rate slipping to its lowest since December 1969, at 3.6 percent in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Brooks said there are millions of job openings in America right, and Boone County is competing nationally to attract workers. With more jobs coming, Boone County will need more workers to fill those positions, and they will need to come not only from the local community, but other parts of the nation as well. Brooks said employers need to compete to attract and keep employees. She said one way is by offering programs that contribute toward continued employee education.

State Sen. Brian Buchanan said workforce-ready grants, a type of financial aid for working-age adults, also could help those who have some education but need more training or a certificate to advance in the workplace.

With an estimated 700,000 expected baby boomer retirements coming within the next decade, Darrel Zeck, executive director of the Indiana Office of Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship, said a large portion of vacating positions will need workers with something other than a high school diploma or four-year college degree. They will require workers with specialized skills that come from work-based learning and apprenticeships in growing fields such as manufacturing.

Zeck said training needs to be encouraged from a young age, starting in high school, through various programs. He said it’s a fallacy that four-year colleges offer the only career-path opportunities beyond high school, and that thinking needs to be altered for communities to get the most out of their prospective workforce.

Buchanan added workers must “follow their passion” if they want to be successful because fulfilled workers make some of the best employees.

The luncheon was part of the Boone County Leadership Series, a succession of monthly events through September, hosted by the Boone County Chamber and the Community Foundation of Boone County.

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