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Understanding, meeting needs of workers, industry

Written August 2nd, 2014 by
Categories: In The News

The Star
Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report Friday showed continued improvement — with 209,000 non-farm jobs added. For the first time since 1997, the economy has added 200,000 or more jobs in six straight months.

That said, the unemployment rate actually ticked up slightly to 6.2 percent, from 6.1 percent in June.

Before the uptick, unemployment was at its lowest levels since the fall of 2008 when financial giant Lehman Brothers collapsed along with other firms and much of the auto industry.

As we get back on track, major concerns persist. Wage growth is only about 2 percent a year, compared to 3.5 percent in past recoveries. With comparatively low wages, consumer spending cannot aid the economy as much as it did during past recoveries.

Car sales directly impact us here in northeast Indiana. Michael Hicks, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, said that as the federal reserve considers a future slowing of the growth of the money supply to head off inflation, “Fort Wayne will feel a slight pinch on auto sales.”

In addition, workforce participation — the number of Americans working or actively looking for work — seems to be stuck around 62 percent. In some instances, the jobs are there but the workers with the required skills are not.

The nature of manufacturing jobs has changed in the past 20 to 30 years — most now require advanced skills.

Here at the crossroads of America, our economic development is more closely tied to the automotive industry than almost any other region in the nation, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Twenty-four percent of the jobs in our area are in manufacturing. More than 22 percent of those jobs are connected to transportation equipment production. Most states have seen shifts away from manufacturing to health care, but Indiana remains one of seven states with manufacturing as the sector with the highest employment, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Three years ago a report co-authored by researchers at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business said the auto industry’s restructuring activities — such as applying new technologies and production efficiencies, reducing costs and modifying product lines — were underway and leading to an extended period of downsizing well before the recession arrived.

According to the 2011 report, automakers face a variety of challenges such as global competition, government mandates and consumer demands. Finding the best balance of materials and technologies to meet these sometimes-conflicting demands requires agility and new approaches to design and manufacturing.

Autoworkers increasingly need to emphasize integrative systems approaches, critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills, together with a commitment to lifelong learning at all levels of the workforce, the 2011 report stated.

Northeast Indiana is receiving state funds to help market certain career opportunities.

The Indiana Works Council recently awarded $65,000 in Career and Technical Awareness grants to Northeast Indiana Works and nine other regional works councils in the state.

Northeast Indiana Works plans to use the money to focus on students, according to the agency’s communications director, Rick Farrant. Students will be encouraged to develop skills needed in advanced manufacturing, certified machining, welding and industrial maintenance.

The awareness campaign will focus on middle and high school students, as well as parents, educators and employers.

This followed Gov. Mike Pence’s announcement of more than $3 million in Innovative CTE Curriculum grant awards.

The funds are a three-to-one match to the private investments that were required for the awards, which are designed to boost career and technical training opportunities for workers and students throughout Indiana.

The growing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in our schools and after-school programs, beginning at very young ages, is essential for our workers’ futures.

Supporting and mentoring students as they strive to obtain the advanced skills industries need … and better understanding these industries and their ups and downs — will help us forge a stronger economy throughout the region.

OUR VIEW is written on a rotating basis by Grace Housholder, Dave Kurtz, Michael Marturello, Barry Rochford and Matt Getts. Publisher Terry Housholder is also a member of the editorial board. We welcome readers’ comments.