As Indiana grapples with its "skills gap" — a mismatch between available workers and the manufacturing jobs that need filled — one federally funded program has graduated hundreds of unemployed or underemployed people straight into skilled work at the likes of Caterpillar or Subaru.
Ready To Work, funded in north-central Indiana through a $7.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, has graduated more than 500 from its five-week paid training program. More than 531 have gone on to work at manufacturers in the Lafayette region like Subaru of Indiana Automotive, according to Ready To Work project manager Lisa Smith.
It's one way Indiana leaders have sought to close the skills gap. While some 47 percent of Indiana adults ages 25 and up have no more than a high school education, according to 2015 census estimates, more and more jobs are requiring at least some technical training beyond high school.
Indiana Department of Workforce Development projections indicate jobs requiring no more a high school diploma will grow at the slowest rate over the next seven to eight years, compared to jobs requiring post-secondary certificates or degrees.
The Ready To Work program for the Lafayette region, run by WorkOne's West Central region, has numerous sister programs across the nation, including one in Indianapolis administered by EmployIndy. The Lafayette program is now in its last year of funding — it'll run out close to the end of 2018. Over about the last three years, WorkOne West Central has recruited workers who've been unemployed for at least 27 weeks, or haven't been employed in a position using their skills, and paid them while they went through the training.
One participant, Brian Allen of Logansport, had earned a good living as a CNC machinist up until 2011 or 2012, but found himself working in maintenance at the Cass County Family YMCA in Logansport early last year.
"I got a phone call, they asked me if I'd be interested in the program," Allen, 51, recalled. After a couple of days, he said, he decided to go for it, and gave his notice at the YMCA.
Allen, like some others in the program, was considered underemployed, given his previous work.
"Underemployment is a lot of different things — it could be you had a job making $20 an hour, you lost it and now you're making $15," explained WorkOne career coach Brenda Cruea. A worker with only sporadic employment or who isn't using a degree they hold may also be considered underemployed, she added.
She and other coaches working with Ready to Work participants try to address the underlying reasons participants haven't held down a good job for a while. In some cases, Cruea said, it might be that they don't have reliable transportation.
"That's one of the barriers — they're not able to get to work every day and on time. And that's the number one thing manufacturers are looking for," Cruea said.
The course starts with seven days of unpaid soft skills training in which participants practice interviewing, write resumes and hear from guest speakers about budgeting and finances. They also work on job-related soft skills like troubleshooting process issues.
"They make it like a game, divide you up into teams and compete against each other," Allen said. The "games" covered basic manufacturing skills like matching wire labels.
"We went into this room like a manufacturing line and used LEGOs to build cars," Allen recalled. "The first time we didn't even come close" to the expected quota, he added, and had to figure out how to improve their process in order to meet quota.
Then participants transition to the paid part of the course. They get $10 an hour for four weeks, during which they learn and practice skills related to manufacturing, like reading job instructions.
The four-week segment takes place at a Subaru of Indiana facility and includes training in LEAN principles as well as the Eight Disciplines model of problem solving common to the automotive industry and the 5S method of workplace organization originally developed in Japan, according to Cruea.
Some participants get help with gas, car repairs or childcare in addition to the $10 an hour for training, Cruea said — or even help buying clothing.
"Those are expensive, if you have to go pay for a pair of work boots," Cruea pointed out.
It's all intended to help Ready To Work participants get past the barriers that they've faced trying to get a good job.
In the fourth week of the five-week program, human resources representatives from five area companies visit to interview all the participants, Cruea said, for positions with wages averaging at least $13.50 per hour. Allen called that aspect of the program "really neat."
Cruea said the program in general, and the interview sessions in particular, help build participants' self-confidence — a key factor in their career pursuits after the program.
"You possibly could have five job offers," Cruea said. "It kind of turns it towards them to decide where they want to work at. They have options, for once."
Cruea said 95 percent of program graduates have accepted a job by the end of the program. The program also reimburses employers for $10 per hour of a graduate's first nine weeks.
Allen graduated Nov. 11, 2016, and started working second shift at Subaru on a chassis line. He'd come out of the program with more self-confidence, but started getting discouraged as he discovered that job wasn't a good fit for him.
"They agreed, it's not for everybody," he recalled. So after discussing his situation with his WorkOne coach, he decided to pursue another opportunity.
During the program interviews, he'd also gotten an invitation to work for Caterpillar, so he applied there and got on as a machinist. He's worked there about nine months now.
Ready To Work "prepared me to give better interviews, and also to be ready going into manufacturing," Allen said. "I'd been in it for years, but I think it prepares you better ... gets you ready better."