GARY | A Chicago-based U.S. Department of Labor representative praised Northwest Indiana work force development efforts and offered suggestions on how businesses can continue to support the labor market.
As a speaker at a Gary Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Ken Bennett said entrepreneurs and leaders of businesses and community organization should embrace providing more opportunities for youth, especially those who are minorities, to get work experience.
Bennett, a regional representative for Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, said providing internships, job shadowing opportunities and or full-time employment to young people is key to economic growth.
"There's nothing like getting that first check that you've earned for a hard day's work," Bennett said to about 50 people at the Steel City Buffet & Grill.
Bennett said federal agencies including the Department of Labor, are excited about what could be developing in Northwest Indiana, particularly in Gary. He said Ivy Tech Community College is used as an example of the importance of colleges developing curricula in tandem with industry to directly improve employment opportunities. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, was part of a group that visited the Gary campus in April.
He also said there's interest in what is happening in the region following a presentation Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson made in Chicago earlier this year to a panel of representatives from federal agencies.
"When you see great things happening, everybody wants to put their thumbprint on it and be a part of that," Bennett said.
After hearing Bennett speak, Linda Woloshansky, president of the Valparaiso-based Center of Workforce Innovations, said she was encouraged that Bennett and other federal officials are engaged about what's happening in the region and hopes that carries over into funding requests from her organization and others. She said organizations involved in workforce development have had to deal with a "staggering" drop in federal funds available for programs for about a decade.
The Center of Workforce Innovations oversees the administration of unemployment benefits and other workforce services in Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Newton, Jasper, Starke and Pulaski counties. The Center of Workforce Innovations reports to the Northwest Indiana Workforce Board.
"It should bode well for Northwest Indiana as we look at initiatives that might need their support," Woloshansky said.
Woloshansky said the regional workforce board is now accepting feedback from employers and community groups about their youth employment practices and what type of youth hiring has occurred this summer. She said the organization is gathering input in an effort to understand what type of support the board could offer to employers for future initiatives.
Later this month, the Department of Labor is expected to release data on summer employment among people ages 16 to 24. Last year, the labor force participation rate for all "youth" was the lowest on record at 59.5. The unemployment rate for youth dropped in 2011 to 18.1 percent from a record high a year earlier, but Bennett said the rate was around 30 percent for black youth.