More schools need to focus less on preparing children for college and more on teaching technical skills needed to land jobs that often pay more with a two-year degree or less.
That was one of the messages conveyed Tuesday at the Fall Economic Briefing at Purdue North Central, presented by the chambers of commerce in La Porte and Michigan City.
Anthony Sindone, continuing lecturer of economics at the campus near Westville, said many graduates with a bachelor's degree have unpaid student loans without the skills needed for the jobs in higher demand today, such as registered nurses, operating engineers, dental hygienists, and electrical and electronics repair.
For too long, a majority of students have been advised a four-year degrees paves the way to higher earnings, he said.
"It's not always that way," Sindone said. He said such advice is a contributor to the skills gap locally and throughout the nation, which has prevented the slow economic recovery from picking up steam.
Sindone said there are efforts to get the state to change its grading system for schools to reflect not just how well students are being taught the standard curriculum but also instruction on certified technical education.
Sindone cited figures showing within a 25 mile radius of Michigan City and LaPorte nearly 1,000 jobs are available, many of which demand skills people often don't have.
He said just 9 percent of high school graduates in the region leave with career and technical education (CTE) skills and the others go to college in pursuit of a four-year degree that won't prepare them for the higher demand jobs.
In comparison, 97 percent of the students from schools that concentrate on career and technical education find work "relevant to their field," Sindone said.
"Maybe we need to customize our education programs for the students rather than trying to mold the students into our education programs," said Sindone.
Sindone said the problem is at the same level with older workers who suddenly find themselves unemployed and in need of retraining but without knowledge on where to go to upgrade their skills.
Another factor behind the still high unemployment rate nationwide are 2.4 million fewer jobs now than in 2008 when the recession hit, from companies using more automation and getting more productivity out of their workers, said R. Derek Bjonback, associate professor of economics at PNC.
Bjonback said manufacturing for awhile was leading the recovery with 6 percent increases in output nationwide, but in the past two years output has slumped to just 2.2 percent yearly increases.
Construction and the hospitality industry are areas still doing well, and exceptions to the slowdown in manufacturing is the RV industry in Elkhart County, which continues to add jobs and factories on the average statewide.
Bjonback said growth rate in the housing industry for 2014 is projected at 15 percent, but the number of new homes predicted to go up is still 20 percent below from the level during the 1990s.
"There are some real bright spots," he said.
Bjonback said the economy is recovering but not nearly at the pace that historically has happened after a recession.