NEW ALBANY — Gov. Eric Holcomb has a hefty goal for Indiana this year, although it's not one without precedent. He wants to add 35,000 jobs in the state, up from 30,000 added last year, said his lieutenant governor, Suzanne Crouch, at a One Southern Indiana event at Indiana University Southeast on Friday.
But creating jobs isn't the challenge, she said. “It's finding qualified workers.”
During a speech Crouch gave to 1si members, which focused mainly on the economy, she listed a few examples of what the state is doing to help local areas strengthen their workforce.
Crouch complimented the Southern Indiana area on its “great” economic “successes,” including the health of its business parks, such as River Ridge Commerce Center and the Port of Indiana-Jeffersonville. In February, unemployment in the Louisville metropolitan area was at 3.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The area may be doing well, but a lack of a skilled workforce is holding it back, said Wendy Dant Chesser, the the president and CEO of 1si, in a short speech that she gave before Crouch.
In Indiana, there are 85,000 unfilled jobs, according to the Holcomb administration.
Darwin Harting, the owner of Expedia CruiseShipCenters in New Albany, said at Crouch's visit that the economy has treated him well, but when it comes to finding employees for his travel agency, he has few to choose from.
Jerry Acy, the executive director of River Ridge, also acknowledged the existence of a workforce development issue, although he said that the commerce center's businesses have managed to fill their empty positions so far.
The Southern Indiana area is already doing its part to help with workforce development, Crouch said. 1si has launched its own workforce development initiative, which connects local employers with workforce providers and training and education resources.
The state is doing its part, too, according to Crouch.
This year, Gov. Holcomb signed two workforce development bills into effect. One created a smaller board to monitor how Indiana spends money on workforce development. The other added $5 million to an Indiana grant program that pays for businesses to train their workers. It also required an evaluation of Indiana's workforce development programs.
Crouch said the bills would build a framework for a new workforce training system in Indiana.
“Local and regional communities should have the flexibility and the funding to design education and workforce training programs that make sense for your own local employment needs,” she said.
Crouch also mentioned a new bill that lifts a sales tax for companies that sell software as a service, which she said would retain technology companies in the state.
But developing the workforce isn't just about training current Indiana residents, Crouch said. She also wants to attract workers from out of the state.
The Next Level Veterans initiative, announced this year and which Crouch is in charge of, is supposed to help with that.
The initiative operates under the assumption that there are 50,000 former veterans every year looking for work outside of their home state and away from their last base, a statistic that Crouch gave. There were 370,000 unemployed veterans in 2017, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those veterans could come to Indiana if the state markets the option to them, Crouch said. That's what her initiative is about.
“It's a collaborative approach to attract skilled, employable military personnel as they transition from service,” she said. “And we will match the veteran up with jobs we have available and connect them with Hoosier communities that they can call their own.”
Acy added onto Crouch's points, saying that areas can attract out-of-state workers by addressing quality of life issues and building enough housing.
In the end, though, at least Indiana is adding jobs. Except that might be at risk, too, as workforce development lags.
In February, the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed its metropolitan employment statistics. From this year to last, the Louisville area added 7,300 jobs, an increase of 1.1 percent.
That's positive growth, Uric Dufrene, vice chancellor of academic affairs for IUS and the former Sanders Chair of the IUS School of Business, said, but it isn't as positive as what the area has seen in previous years. In 2016, the metro was adding 3,000 jobs each quarter, according to a previous News and Tribune article.
Dufrene believes that the lack of growth is probably tied to businesses not being able to find the workers they need. When employers can't hire people, they try to make it work with their existing labor force, which could mean switching to automation or taking other measures.
When told about Dufrene's concerns, Crouch said that the state will do more to help if more assistance is needed.