MERRILLVILLE | Northwest Indiana's economy has grown to $34 billion today from $29 billion in 2009, but the rising tide is not lifting the boats of workers without enough skills or education.
The region's unemployment rate is hovering around 9.9 percent, and about 39,000 people are out of work. But businesses, including manufacturers, are still having a hard time finding qualified employees to fill open positions, said Linda Woloshansky, president and chief executive officer Center for Workforce Innovations in Valparaiso.
A local manufacturer, for instance, expects to lose out on a contract it won because it cannot find skilled enough workers to fill 40 openings, she said.
Woloshansky told a crowd of business leaders gathered at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza in Merrillville that collaborative efforts were underway – both in Northwest Indiana and statewide – to ensure that workers were better qualified for the jobs of today and tomorrow. She and Indiana Chamber of Commerce officials addressed the need for more workforce development, which the chamber is calling the No. 1 issue facing Indiana.
They called upon businesses to work with educators, such as by talking to them about industry trends and letting them take their classes on workplace tours. They asked parents to stress the importance of pursuing education beyond high school, and urged workers to consider getting technical certifications and other advanced training for jobs that are in demand.
Highland resident Ann Marie told officials from companies like ArcelorMittal, Centier Bank and NIPSCO about how she was improving her life by pursuing an online teaching degree at Western Governors University.
Three years ago, Marie was homeless with four children to support and a seriously ill mother. She tried attending a brick-and-mortar school to better her station in life, but transportation became an issue.
She is now in her last term, getting ready to graduate, and looking forward to a new teaching career.
Pursuing some type of post-secondary education – whether a technical certificate or a degree – has become crucial in the modern economy, Woloshansky said. About 65 percent of the unemployed workers in this area have a high school diploma or less.
Jobs require more skills because workplaces are becoming increasingly high-tech, she said. Employment in Northwest Indiana has dropped by 1.4 percent since 2009 even though the regional economy has grown by $5 billion a year, because technology has enabled businesses to be more productive with fewer workers, she said.
People used to be able to get manufacturing jobs without any education beyond high school if they were hard workers, but factories are becoming increasingly computerized, said R. Mark Lawrance, the Indiana Chamber's senior vice president of foundation and operations.
"Today, at many manufacturing institutions, it looks like you could eat off the floor," he said. "There's some high-tech stuff going on, and the perceptions are not always accurate."