Madison-Grant art teacher Sherie Solms assists senior Jon Pyle as he works on a computer project. File photo | The Herald Bulletin
Madison-Grant art teacher Sherie Solms assists senior Jon Pyle as he works on a computer project. File photo | The Herald Bulletin
INDIANAPOLIS — Declining college enrollment. More people sitting out of the labor force. Fewer Hoosiers with high school diplomas and more students graduating with few practical skills.

Those are just some of the issues that could leave Indiana in the “digital dust” if left unsolved.

That’s according to a new study released Friday by the Governor's Workforce Cabinet detailing how to tackle those challenges and support Indiana employers, many of which now require workers with strong digital skills.

The report comes as the state faced significant workforce issues even before the COVID-19 pandemic, including lagging wages, a tight labor market, declining education rates and an aging population.

“The pandemic set in and ravaged an already confusing and fraught workforce system,” the study says.

Faced with workforce shortages, many employers accelerated development of digital technologies to bolster production and processes to remain efficient. Now, few Hoosiers are prepared to take on those new jobs, according the report.

The report suggests overcoming those challenges in part by rethinking education in Indiana and incentivizing workers and students to pursue skills that are in high demand by employers.

That includes incentivizing colleges based on the number of graduates with high-demand degrees like computer science, math, technology and engineering to fill occupations most needed by the state’s current and future businesses.

The Cabinet also recommends providing monetary incentives to high school students who complete dual credit courses or receive training in areas in demand by employers. Students would receive money for college and schools would also be rewarded with grant funding.

Preparing the workforce for a digital future is more critical in Indiana than anywhere else in the U.S.

Nearly one-third of Indiana jobs are now highly susceptible to automation, which is the highest share in the country, according to research conducted for the state by the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Employers will replace these jobs with a mix of technology and more skilled workers, the report explains.

“The world is being transformed overnight, and Indiana must accelerate its digital development to thrive,” the study says. “Indiana’s key to success is proactive, assertive state leadership on digital-economy issues.”

A major step the state can take, according to the report, is connecting employers and workers through the creation of the Indiana Talent Agency — a “one-stop, statewide service” to help create a development-and-employee pipeline for key industries.

The agency would connect employers to education and training providers to identify high-demand, high-wage opportunities for workers.

Some of those workers will need to come from out of state or even overseas to increase the state’s labor force as population growth slows, the study argues. In 2021, Indiana saw the smallest annual population increase since 2015, according to the Indiana Business Research Center.

To fill the workforce gap, the Cabinet encouraged state leaders to champion Congress for employment-based immigration reform to help Indiana compete in the global economy.

“Indiana will need to supplement its labor force through net domestic migration and employment-based foreign immigration as birth rates decline and Indiana’s baby boomers age out of the workforce,” the report says.

Key recommendations also include removing barriers that keep residents out of the workforce or make it difficult to develop the kinds of skills that employers require.

That includes making it easier for people with misdemeanors to have their charges permanently removed from their record. Expunging a misdemeanor can be expensive, but if the charge remains, it can hurt one’s chances to get a job interview, a call back and steady employment, the report notes.

The Cabinet also supports automatically enrolling all financially eligible students in the 21st Century Scholars program to ensure they receive financial aid, and requiring high school seniors to fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) before graduating.

The report comes ahead of the Indiana General Assembly’s 2023 legislative session, which starts on Jan. 10, and its recommendations will be considered by lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb.

Ryan Kitchell, chair of the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, called the group’s solutions “bold” but necessary to connect employers with the workforce talent they need.

If that doesn’t happen soon, it could spell disaster for the state’s economy.

“Indiana is at a critical moment,” the report says. “The world around us is changing. Doing more of the same will not serve Hoosiers well. Indiana must focus time, resources and effort and move swiftly.”
© 2022 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.