Yesterday, I had the pleasure to participate in an economic forecasting forum in South Bend Indiana put on by the Northern Indiana Workforce Investment Board. During the event, which was moderated by Terry Savage of the Chicago Sun Times, the other economists and I not only talked amongst ourselves but also responded to questions from an audience of about 300-400.
More than any other topic, the issue of skills and education came up again and again. What skills are manufacturers looking for? How does our educational system stack up internationally? Are we producing enough engineers and scientists? What will happen to those who lack the skills required in the ever-changing workforce? The topic of skills and education was on the mind of the audience.
Which should not be a surprise. You see, 28 percent of Indiana’s economy is manufacturing, making it the most industrial-intense state in the nation. Indiana manufacturing is very diverse, including sizable shares of transportation products, chemicals, primary/fabricated metals, medial equipment and machinery. After falling by 9% in 2001, Indiana manufacturing has averaged 5% growth in the following 3 years, an has accounted for 50% (half) of the state’s economic growth since the end of the recession.
As the most recent Manufacturing Week Survey shows, manufacturers are now in the mood to hire. However, half of them who are looking to hire can’t find qualified candidates to fill an opening. This brings us back to education. It seems clear that there is a disconnect between what high schools and 2 year colleges are teaching, and what skills industry needs in today’s economy. The longer we let this skills gap expand, the larger the problem will become. Its time for policy makers at the state, local and national levels to come together with industry to make sure that the U.S. education system is better aligned with the job market of today and tomorrow.