The Journal Gazette
Monday, September 06, 2021 1:00 am

Labor-starved firms eye training

Several initiatives spend millions on enhancing skills

LISA GREEN | The Journal Gazette

Millions of dollars are being poured into labor force training initiatives to help employers fill staffing gaps in a peculiar pandemic economy.

Nearly 120 employers took advantage of Employer Training Grants through Indiana's Next Level Jobs initiative between July and November last year. That allowed 2,065 workers to receive short-term training valued at $7.4 million, said Rick Farrant, director of communications for Northeast Indiana Works.

The Fort Wayne-based workforce development agency helps facilitate the training, including by assisting employers with the grant application process, creating training plans and reimbursing employers.

Another $2.2 million came to northeast Indiana with a second round of Employer Training Grants from Next Level Jobs funding that began in July. Fifty employers have funding approval and expect to have 274 workers trained, Farrant said.

This year, the Employer Training Grants now reimburse employers up to $5,000 per employee trained, hired and retained for six months – up to $50,000 per business. Eligible career categories include advanced manufacturing, agriculture, IT, building and construction, health and life sciences, and transportation and logistics, Farrant said.

The Next Level Jobs initiative also includes Workforce Ready Grants. Northeast Indiana Works this spring received a $325,963 in these grants for free, short-term training for adults interested in jobs including welding, machining or obtaining a commercial driver's license. It was the second such round of funding, and the money is good through Dec. 31. So far, 44 people are in training; the goal is 78, Farrant said.

In the first round of Workforce Ready Grants last year, northeast Indiana used $432,991 to train 130 individuals. These grants pay up to $10,000 in tuition and fees for participants.

Widespread effort

Other area stakeholders are also stepping up. The Don Wood Foundation has committed more than $4 million into education programs focused on advanced manufacturing and precision machining careers.

Ivy Tech Community College Fort Wayne has added staff to expand efforts to help customize talent pool expansion approaches for businesses.

Lutheran Social Services of Indiana has a 2021 budget that includes $483,000 specifically for its LSSI Works initiative to help individuals with personal and professional skills. More than 300 individuals have taken classes or training in the past several years.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, some employers lamented the lack of depth in northeast Indiana's skilled workforce. Their difficulty in finding able bodies to fill jobs is evident in hiring signs that line curbs, dot landscapes, and entrance doors and lobbies to countless businesses. In some cases, businesses have signs posted showing adjusted hours – blaming the changes on staffing shortages.

Along with the Employer Training and Workforce Ready funding through the state, Northeast Indiana Works recently received a $250,000 rural health care training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The training will mostly be for Certified Nursing Aides and healthcare tech positions. The goal is to train 98 people with grant money good through Jan. 31, 2025. Interested individuals must be willing to work in a rural health care setting.

When employers are ready to hire, Farrant said Northeast Indiana Works and its Work One Career Centers have seen fewer candidates than ever show up for job fairs they have hosted or assisted with.

“The skill levels of some candidates continues to be lacking,” Farrant said. “The interest of those looking for work to acquire additional training is lagging.”

Significant attention has been given to “developing pipelines,” down to the high school and middle school levels, he said. Examples include short-term certifications, which might be in welding or CNC machining. Also, dual credits for college-level classes taken in high school are giving students “a leg up.”

A ceremony is scheduled Sept. 17 to unveil a welding registered apprenticeship program Northeast Indiana Works has developed with Garrett High School in DeKalb County. Forty juniors and seniors are expected to sign up for the paid apprenticeship and another 38 sophomores at Garrett are on a wait list, a news release said last week.

The up to three-year welding apprenticeship, approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, is an extension of a State Earn and Learn career development welding program at Garrett. It is just the third registered apprenticeship in Indiana supported by a workforce development board – in this case Northeast Indiana Works.

“We've also seen, to a great degree, the emergence of awareness campaigns that expose kids” to career options, Farrant said. “I would say 10 years ago these campaigns were few and far between. ... And still despite all of that, the worker shortage continues.”

While the so-called worker shortage predates the pandemic, Farrant said it “seems more acute now.”

Some employers are raising wages to help attract job candidates. Some are offering attendance and sign-on bonuses, flexible scheduling such as four-day weeks, and promising benefits that start the employee's first day.

Other approaches include easing educational requirements or relaxing barriers for people previously incarcerated, which could shorten the time between the offense and when they could be hired.

“I know crisis is a strong word, but we may be approaching a crisis when it comes to meeting the needs of employers,” Farrant said. “We need people to step up and get back to work.”

Foundations help

The Don Wood Foundation was launched in 2017 and received nonprofit status in 2018 with a goal of strengthening the Midwest manufacturing sector.

The foundation is named after the now deceased co-founder of the 80/20 Inc. manufacturing company in Columbia City.

“What we've funded to date are a lot of traditional K-12 schools that have emerging advanced manufacturing and related programs,” Foundation Executive Director Laura Macknick said.

The foundation has funded some career and technical education centers – probably with about $1 million – but Macknick said it saw an opportunity to further expand options. In some cases, that means students interested in manufacturing-type jobs don't have to travel as far for related educational programs.

The Whitko Community School Corp.'s Career Academy is one of the centers the Don Wood Foundation helped create, Macknick said. The support included the hiring of an academy director to develop a program and $2.3 million to retrofit school space and buy equipment. Whitko includes Whitley and Kosciusko counties.

Macknick said an individual capable of teaching the desired curriculum could earn $70,000 to $90,000 if employed by a business. So finding quality instructors and retaining them with salaries they could command in the market is difficult, she said, especially when manufacturing is hurting for hires and might provide extra incentive to keep their talent.

Creative recruiting

Given current hiring challenges, employers must “get creative in their recruiting approaches,” said Joe McMichael, executive director of Career Coaching & Employer Connections for Ivy Tech.

Social media outlets, including TikTok or Snapchat, could be avenues for promoting some openings, he said, noting that those apps have the attention of many younger adults.

Companies also need to offer competitive pay and be conscious of their culture, McMichael said. He describes culture as including how an employer is regarded in the community: Is it one people would want to work, along with factors such as turnover and opportunity for upward mobility.

Some companies are paying very well, he said, and still not getting the desired results.

Ivy Tech has broadened its approach to helping businesses address workforce needs.

The college on Sept. 21 will celebrate the final rollout of its Career Coaching and Employer Connections program for its 19 Indiana campuses.

In March last year, Fort Wayne was one of the system's first six campuses to introduce the program, McMichael said. Previously, the three-person local department was called Career Development, with career coaches, career assessments and career pathway focuses. It now has 10 staff, including a part-time administrative assistant.

The new approach emphasizes career readiness practices along with preparation throughout a student's college experience. It also engages employers to provide input while “still receiving targeted services to address their workforce needs,” McMichael said.

Ivy Tech prides itself on partnerships to upskill the workforce. Its statewide Achieve Your Degree program allows employers to decide whether to reimburse partial or full tuition for employed students.

“Many companies have embraced that as one way to build the talent pipeline,” McMichael said.

In August, Ivy Tech announced one of its latest Achieve Your Degree partnerships with Metal Technologies.

The Auburn company became the first employer to offer free tuition for any Ivy Tech degree program for all full- and part-time employees, outgoing Chancellor Jerrilee K. Mosier said. Employees can work as little as 20 hours a week and qualify. Starting pay at Metal Technologies is $19 an hour.

“When our students thrive,” Mosier said last month in a statement, “they become part of the skilled workforce that will drive northeast Indiana's local economy.”

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