Employers, educators collaborate to train, develop strong Region workforce
Businesses in Northwest Indiana that want high-quality employees aren’t just sitting back, putting up a “We’re Hiring” sign, and hoping someone knocks on their doors.
Employers are collaborating with educational institutions, governmental and nonprofit entities to ensure they can find the skilled and reliable workers they need to fill positions.
“There are a lot of jobs right here and now in Northwest Indiana,” said George Douglas, senior vice president at Indiana Beverage in Valparaiso. “And it doesn’t always take four years (of college) to get them.”
One of the entities working to prepare students for college and careers is the Center of Workforce Innovations in Valparaiso. The nonprofit is dedicated to helping employers find skilled employees or to provide additional training for current employees. It also helps jobseekers to pursue training or find jobs.
“We mostly promote workforce development as part of an overall economic development strategy,” said Roy Vanderford, director of strategic solutions for the center.
Vanderford emphasizes that jobseekers might not need a four-year college degree but are likely going to need some type of training after high school to obtain a higher-paying position with advancement potential.
“Our message to all students is that you’re going to need certification or a credential in some form beyond high school to access higher wages,” he said.
For some students, just showing a business they know the basics of being a good employee can help them land a job. To that end, WorkOne Northwest Indiana is working with high schools to offer a Work Ethic Certificate for seniors.
“It really helps students demonstrate some of the sort of soft skills employers are looking for,” Douglas said. “It’s bridging the gap between what businesses are looking for and what schools are providing.”
Some of the 10 skills the certificate covers are punctuality, hygiene and being able to pass a drug test.
“You’d think that they’d get some of these skills at school or at home,” Douglas said. “But employers were reporting back that we really needed to strengthen this.”
Throughout Indiana, a new state law is geared toward helping students better prepare for life after graduation by considering beforehand what they want to do.
The goal of Graduation Pathways, according to the Indiana State Board of Education, is to ensure that high school students graduate with an awareness and engagement with individual career interests and associated career options, a strong foundation of academic and technical skills, and skills that lead directly to meaningful opportunities for postsecondary education, training and employment.
Starting this year’s freshmen class, students will need to show employability skills by completing at least one of the following: a project-based learning experience, a service-based learning experience or a work-based learning experience.
They also will need to complete one among a list of requirements that include such options as an honors diploma that fulfills all the requirements of either an academic or technical honors diploma, ACT or SAT college-ready benchmarks, a minimum score that qualifies them for placement in a branch of the military, a state of industry-recognized credential or certificate, or a federally recognized apprenticeship.
“It (the new law) also has some proof points that they are connecting with career counseling,” Vanderford said.
Under the new high school graduation requirements, experts hope students will be better prepared to transition smoothly into higher education or a job. For college students or older adults who are still wondering what they will do with their lives, or how to get ahead in their current jobs, there are ample training opportunities, educators and business owners said.
Partnering for results
Educational institutions, including Purdue University Northwest and Ivy Tech Community College, are working directly with businesses to craft educational and training programs that are tailored to employers’ particular needs.
“I go out into industry and find out what the training gaps are,” said DeeDee White, a workforce consultant for Ivy Tech’s Lake County campus, which works with businesses to develop training modules for employees.
For instance, she coordinated with a local hospital to develop a training program on basic electricity for the hospital’s maintenance workers. An instructor taught the program on-site.
White often discovers businesses’ training needs by networking with them.
“A lot of them know us well enough to know what we do, but we also go to a lot of chamber of commerce events and meet and greets,” she said.
The cost for the training, that covers such items as instructors’ pay and materials, varies greatly. Some businesses can tap into grants to cover the costs.
The time it takes to develop a training program also varies greatly.
“If it’s something we’ve done before and if it’s something we’ve got instructor availability for, we could put it together in a couple weeks,” White said.
PNW also provides job training for businesses that want to see their employees excel.
“We offer a menu of items that we can train on, and businesses can customize their training,” said Deborah Blades, director of industrial relations and experiential learning at the Hammond campus.
The college serves 20 to 25 companies a year that are looking for specific training.
Indiana Beverage was able to take advantage of a grant to help some of their employees improve their skills and earn more money. The company offers a 12-week training course that enables workers to get a CDL Class A commercial driver’s license.
A warehouse worker, for instance, who gets the license will see a 30% to 40% increase in pay, Douglas said.
“That’s a skill that’s transferable,” he added. “It’s recognized not only in Indiana but across the country.”
The training is covered by a Skill Up grant that Indiana Beverage attained through the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.
While Ivy Tech provides customized training for businesses, it also offers another training program called Open Enrollment that enables individual job seekers to train for a particular career. Some of the training options include a program for casino dealers to learn how to deal blackjack or craps or for a certified production technician who troubleshoots issues on a manufacturing production line.
A casino dealer can earn about $40,000 a year. Pay for a certified production technician ranges from $15 to $18 an hour, she said.
The costs range from $45 for food-handling training to $2,975 for training in computer numeric controls.
Based on employers’ needs for workers in particular fields, PNW has developed several other programs to help them. For instance, in 2016 it started offering a professional selling minor in the College of Business.
In 2018, the college opened a state-of-the-art White Lodging Professional Sales Lab on its Hammond campus. The facility features six suites furnished with cameras that enable students to get instructor feedback and analyze for themselves how they performed in a presentation or selling pitch.
“Our focus is helping students find a solution rather than just selling a product,” said Claudia Mich, associate professor of marketing, College of Business, Purdue University Northwest. “They have to dig deep and find customers’ need. They have to know how to ask questions.”
Brian Burton, vice president of sales and events at White Lodging, said his company is sponsoring the lab because it will help students get a leg up in the job market by knowing how to sell.
“To get this type of training really early in your career is very exciting,” he said. “For White Lodging, it means we could have employees who already have some training in sales and could be onboarded quicker.”
Another program at PNW is a new banking management concentration. Based on industrywide needs, it was developed in partnership with the Indiana Bankers Association.
Rod Lasley, vice president of member services at the Indiana Bankers Association, said the industry foresees a significant labor shortage as baby boomers retire.
“Twenty-five percent of banking management positions across the U.S. will turn over in the next five years,” he said.
Members of the banking association are covering the $145,000 start-up costs of the program during the next three years.
The program that started this year has classes in banking management, reporting and compliance, risk management and personal selling.
“These are the four pillars that anyone getting into banking would need to know,” said Matthew Wells, executive director of career management at PNW.
Anthony Contrucci, vice president of community relations at Centier Bank, said the program, which also requires students to complete at least one internship at a bank, will enable students to pursue thriving banking careers in Northwest Indiana.
“The key is to avoid a brain drain,” he said.
Paolo Miranda, associate professor of finance at PNW, who developed the banking management curriculum, said working with businesses to discover their labor needs, current technology and other industry information, is crucial to the program’s success.
“If we’re disconnected from the business community, how can we teach students what they will need when they are out in the world?” he asked.
Another program at PNW is a mechatronics engineering technology degree that prepares students to design and develop industrial automation systems that include robotics, vision systems, computer integration for high speed manufacturing and service industries.
The school unveiled a new lab in 2018.
“We try to give students all the skills they need for advanced manufacturing,” said Maged Mikhail, assistant professor in mechatronics engineering. “We’re aligning our curriculum and courses to be relevant to industry. We have almost the same hardware and software.”
Graduates of the four-year degree program are earning in the range of $70,000 to $105,000 a year, Mikhail said.
Businesses, educational institutions and other entities also are addressing how to keep students in the Region after they graduate.
One of the first steps will be to learn where students are moving after they graduate and what careers or jobs they are pursuing.
Vanderford said his organization plans to start tracking where students go and the sorts of careers they pursue.
With businesses, educational institutions and other entities working together to better develop a workforce to serve businesses in Northwest Indiana, those involved in the effort are hopeful about the economic future of the Region, and are proud of what they’ve accomplished so far.
“We have a lot of talent being produced in Northwest Indiana,” Vanderford said.