East Central Indiana's business and education leaders are taking a proactive approach to workforce development, partnering to establish apprenticeship and training programs to prepare for worker shortages and help close the growing skills gap.
These challenges are not unlike those of many communities across the country, caused by an aging workforce and a lack of skilled talent to fill the vacancies left by retirees — particularly in the manufacturing sector, which accounts for half of the employment in Jay County and more than a third in Blackford County.
The Nestlé plant in Anderson, for example, partnered with Ivy Tech Community College to form the Project Opportunity apprenticeship program, which allows students to gain valuable on-the-job experience while attending classes. The three-year program trains students to work on new equipment and equips them with the skills they’ll need for future employment. The Stant Corporation, headquartered in Connersville, also partnered with Ivy Tech and and the Labor Institute for Training to establish a pilot Industrial Manufacturing Technician (IMT) apprenticeship program.
IMT, an emerging field in East Central Indiana, requires employees to set up, operate, monitor and control production equipment as well as continuously improve processes. The John Jay Center for Learning in Portland, which offers associate-level degrees as well as technical and professional certifications, launched an industrial manufacturing training program in 2017 in response to the business community’s needs.
“We have a manufacturing council, and we asked the business leaders on that council ‘What do you need from us?’ And the answers that came back resulted in the industrial manufacturing program,” says Rusty Inman, executive director, John Jay Learning Center. “Our manufacturing partners helped develop the curriculum that we're using. They also chose the machinery and the equipment students will be trained on. They had a hand in every aspect of developing the program, even down to interviewing instructor candidates and giving us recommendations on who to hire.
“Everything was built with the end user, the manufacturer, in mind. For example, our manufacturers wanted to make sure we incorporated 3D printing in the curriculum because that technology is part of the future of manufacturing, and they wanted to make sure we devised a curriculum that would help them stay competitive with the industry changes.”
Inman says the manufacturing industry’s contribution to the program extended beyond advice. The John Jay Center received a grant of nearly $1 million from the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. The Center also received more than $1 million in equipment from industry partners and matching funding from companies, including 3M, Tyson, Stanley Tools and Fort Recovery Industries.
“They continue to give. There is a company that uses Mitsubishi brand programmable logic controllers, and they're the only ones in this area that use that equipment and they want people to be trained on these. They gave us about $3,000 worth of Mitsubishi PLC equipment so we can train on that specific piece of machinery," Inman says. "Stanley Fasteners donated $5,000 worth of hand tools for us so that we could have good, solid, hand tools for our students to learn on. So yes, [the companies] have put their money where their mouth is with their time and with money. It's been such a great collaboration."
Return on Investments
Industry leaders say the investment is well worth it.
“U.S. manufacturing is on the move, but this skills gap is a problem,” says Dean Jetter, CEO of Fort Recovery Industries. “Technology is going to keep advancing, and automation is going to keep advancing. The costs of this type of equipment are large, and you can’t afford to have them down, because of the amount of investment, plus meeting your customer’s needs. What we can do is utilize courses that are taught at John Jay. We can have our apprentice go there to get certain pieces or the whole body of knowledge that they need to get.”
The John Jay Center also works with the local school systems to introduce younger students to manufacturing careers.
“Fifty years ago, career technical education looked different than it does now. It's been taken out of the schools, and now it's being put back in, but there's still a huge skills gap as a lot of people start to retire. That’s why we partnered with Jay School Corporation and Blackford County Schools and got career technical manufacturing classes back in the high schools,” Inman says. “Our mission statement for John Jay is ‘Prosperity and inspiration through education.’ We want to help firm up the middle class in the region, and we want kids who grow up here to be able to stay here and raise their families here and know they don't have to leave to have a good job, a job where they can make a nice living.”