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Aligning college and career paths has been difficult task for Indiana

Matt Mikus Post-Tribune reporter. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Matt Mikus, Post-Tribune reporter. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 12, 2013 6:19AM



Job creation is a hot topic in the General Assembly, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can agree to lowering the unemployment rate.

And it’s one of the few examples of bipartisan efforts, with House bill 1001 having been co-authored by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

The bill would create the Indiana Career Council to serve as a way for different economic and work force departments to talk together.

But economists realize that matching workers to jobs has been an issue developing for decades, and while bringing departments together to coordinate efforts is a start, there’s a lot to discuss.

“It’s a very slow, tedious and lengthy process,” said Michael Hicks, a professor of economics at Ball State University, “Simply put, it’s a market, and that’s the nature of a market. The outcomes of employment are not policy dependent.”

And while there’s a Hoosier work force out there — about 930,000 people, according to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce — it cannot supply the skills 21st-century jobs demand. That leads to the “skills gap,” where jobs required in the work force aren’t filled.

Job training

In the manufacturing economies of old, all you needed to get a good-paying job in Indiana was a high school diploma. That education level would either prepare you for a college degree or more likely a living-wage blue-collar job.

But according to Brian Bosworth, an economic development policy expert, that slowly began to shift about two decades ago and then accelerated because of the economic recession.

Now it isn’t enough to have a high school degree. More specific skills are needed.

Does that mean that the education system isn’t working? That’s up for debate.

Looking at educational achievement rates nationwide, Hicks said the state and the country as a whole doesn’t match up with other countries.

“If you compare U.S. attainment with other developed countries,” he said, “we do well with the first few years of schooling, up until middle school. Then we drop off. That means we’re apt to do a little bit worse in a competitive environment.”

Bosworth said the changing needs of the economy — not the education system — is at the root of the gap. The same disruption of the labor force occurred when the United States evolved from an agricultural-based economy in the 1930s to a manufacturing economy. Nowadays, besides receiving a general education, there’s more that the average person needs to know to land a job, even in manufacturing.

“There’s a lot of information to teach in today’s world,” Bosworth said. “I’m sympathetic to the schools that we can’t just cram it all into four years of high school, it’s just too much.”

In order to get the foot in the door, it takes a little bit more education.

College confusion

That doesn’t mean every student has to head off to a college and get a bachelor’s degree. Indiana tends to provide more bachelor degrees than the state actually needs.

“What that tells you is the economic mix that Indiana seems to prize is a sub-bachelorate degree,” Bosworth said.

Gov. Mike Pence has stated vocational education will be a priority in his administration.

But the graduation rates for certificates and associate degrees are abysmal, at around 14 percent for two-year colleges within three years. Students at these institutions tend to juggle a number of priorities, like a family or jobs to pay for classes.

Part of the issue could be that the typical community college tends to act more like a four-year university.

“A student who’s at this college they need to work, or they have kids, and for them to have a college schedule that looks the same as a Harvard schedule?” Bosworth said. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

It also encourages students to take additional classes they don’t need, which can stretch a one- or two-year degree into four to six years.

Getting focused

Instead, community colleges could streamline courses into blocks and have direct pathways from the class to the career. Also, community colleges could place classes together in morning or afternoon blocks to facilitate scheduling for students who have to work part-time.

High schools could also expand vocational study with the classes designed to focus on a specific pathway to a career.

There’s also a debate of potentially expanding high schools’ role in career planning, Bosworth said, where students who decide college isn’t for them could stay another year to complete a vocational certificate.

Anyway you look at it, it’s going to take more than communication among departments to bridge the gap.



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