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Opinion: Leveraging NWI manufacturing heritage is key to economic growth

Northwest Indiana has deep roots in manufacturing, and our people take great pride in what we build that contributes to life quality in our region and beyond. With good data about the status of our economy, we can have a better idea about where we need to go and how to get there.

Our region can provide incentives for businesses to move to Indiana. We can provide incentives to new and growing businesses; we can invest in innovation and business start-ups; and we can foster an educational environment that promotes entrepreneurship and product development. Such an educational emphasis is needed to grow new industry.

The recently-released One Region Quality of Life Indicators Report provides a “snapshot” of where Northwest Indiana stands economically. The report provides comparative information from 2000 to 2010.

Of note, the size of the labor force has remained stable over that period, while population has increased by 4.1 percent. The unemployment rate was just over 3 percent in 2000, but nearly 10.5 percent in 2010.

Further review indicates that the decline in U.S. and world economies is reflective of the negative trends experienced by Northwest Indiana. Thus, as unemployment increases nationally, so it goes in Northwest Indiana.

A review of job sectors indicates that service industry positions, such as education, health care and hospitality have grown in our region. Yet jobs in construction, manufacturing, and wholesale trades have declined or continue to be slow to recover. This apparent shift from manufacturing to service means higher-paying jobs are giving way to lower-paying occupations.

We in Northwest Indiana must work together to recoup manufacturing positions by providing a skilled workforce that develops higher quality, preferred products than our overseas competitors.

We also must engage in such long-term strategies as small business development, marketing efforts to attract established employers to our region, the nurture of emerging industries, and expanding health care and health care-related products and services.

As attention to cost containment and reduction continues to be a governmental priority, the need to identify better, more efficient delivery of health care and more effective practices that reduce hospital time is crucial.

Retiring baby boomers will require an increasing emphasis on eldercare in NWI and across the nation. Likewise, as new products, services and systems can be utilized for cost reduction, we will see health care-related jobs increase.

That expressed, we must not abandon our NWI manufacturing roots. In fact, I suggest we consider ways to enhance our manufacturing brand image. Purdue Calumet has done just that by recently introducing a manufacturing-related degree program in mechatronics to serve the rapidly growing, multimillion-dollar packaging industry. That industry demands a workforce knowledgeable and trained to design, build, staff and maintain the industry’s complex equipment.

Producing a more educated workforce to enhance manufacturing can rejuvenate our region. Perhaps more importantly, any reinvestment we make in our manufacturing roots should be done with a vision toward emerging companies and industries that can drive our future.

Working together, we can build a viable and strong economic future for NWI that will provide opportunities for our children and grandchildren.

Thomas Keon is chancellor of Purdue University Calumet



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