INDIANAPOLIS — Gov. Eric Holcomb is asking the Indiana General Assembly to realign all levels of the state's education system, as well as its workforce development programs, to primarily satisfy the employment needs of Hoosier companies.

The Republican on Wednesday called for state lawmakers to begin building the framework of what he described as a "21st century skilled and ready workforce" when the Legislature convenes in January for its 10-week session.

Leading the effort will be a new "Governor's Education to Career Pathways Cabinet" that will set parameters for to-be-formed regional organizations tasked with identifying the skills needed by local employers and embedding training for those companies in local school coursework.

Holcomb said that necessitates lawmakers relaxing teacher licensing standards, so business leaders who don't necessarily have training in education still could directly instruct students in science, technology, engineering, math or career classes.

In addition, he wants to require all schools to offer a computer science course by 2021, and high schools would have to provide apprenticeships, work-based learning, industry certification programs and other career training opportunities to their students — possibly as a graduation requirement.

"It's our vision, as we move forward, to make sure that every Hoosier student receives enough of a baseline education, particularly in STEM, intellectual curiosity and critical thinking skills, so they know that they're prepared for this knowledge economy," Holcomb said.

The governor claimed the changes are needed because Indiana businesses are struggling to find enough skilled workers to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs across the state, including more than 92,000 high-wage, high-demand positions.

To that end, Holcomb also wants to "skill-up" the 712,000 Hoosiers with some college credits but no degree, the 350,000 Indiana adults lacking a high school diploma and the 27,000 convicted felons locked up in state prisons.

He said that will be accomplished by having his Education to Career Pathways Cabinet work alongside a new state Office of Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning, in conjunction with the new regional workforce organizations, to evaluate all adult education and job training programs and eliminate those that do not directly lead to employment, preferably in high-paying jobs.

"Just imagine if we skilled-up that million folks in the state of Indiana for the jobs of the future," Holcomb said. "Hoosiers could crack the workforce shortage code."

Unanswered questions

Still unknown is how much money it will cost to realign Indiana's educational programming from its Constitution-mandated purpose of preparing future citizens, to Holcomb's vision of education mainly as an employment pipeline.

He said existing education and workforce development funds could be used in 2018 to begin the planning process, and if any new money is needed it would be appropriated in the two-year state budget that lawmakers will enact in 2019.

Holcomb announced that former LaPorte Mayor Blair Milo, now Indiana's secretary of career connections and talent, will lead his career cabinet, alongside officials from the Department of Education, Commission for Higher Education, Department of Workforce Development and the Office of Management and Budget.

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But he indicated that the regional workforce organizations, which Holcomb expects largely will control the specifics of aligning education and employment skills, are to be organically established by local business leaders, educators and other interested individuals simply deciding to work together.

"The local talent councils could be different sizes," Holcomb said. "They're going to self-select, they're going to determine their region, their community, and we'll be working with that all over the state of Indiana in 2018."

The governor acknowledged that his plan is, in many ways, similar to the Indiana Career Council and Regional Works Councils created by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Mike Pence, that ultimately did little to address the worker skills gap.

However, Holcomb insisted there will be a different result this time, because he intends to empower members of the regional organizations to make meaningful decisions and direct workforce development spending.

"We'll be measuring what is working and what is not working, and we'll be watching what is being implemented," Holcomb said. "This is called walking the walk, not talking the talk."

Plan praised

Unsurprisingly, groups representing Indiana businesses were enthusiastic that under Holcomb's plan the state largely would assume the cost and obligation of training their future and, potentially, current employees.

Barbara Quandt Underwood, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the governor's commitment to building a skilled and ready workforce is "a big deal" for small business.

"Our members say they're having a harder and harder time finding qualified applicants, and that makes it harder for them to grow and create more job opportunities," she said.

Indiana Chamber of Commerce CEO Kevin Brinegar also praised Holcomb's focus on STEM education and his proposed requirement that Indiana schools teach computer science in response to recent growth in the state's technology sector.

"Making K-12 (education) better aligned with business needs should be a priority, so students have access to explore the skills that are in demand," Brinegar said.

Legislative leaders of both political parties likewise praised the governor's proposals, with House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, declaring it "a bold agenda."

"Indiana's strong economy continues to pay dividends through record job creation and low unemployment," Bosma said. "To maintain this momentum, and to continue to attract employers in record numbers, it's clear we have to strengthen our workforce pipeline."

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said his caucus similarly supports the goals of "a top-notch workforce and more job training opportunities," though he insisted Hoosier workers also require stronger wages and affordable healthcare.

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