Good Employment Numbers, But We've Got Issues

Hoosiers should be celebrating recently-released employment numbers that show private sector employment in the state is at an all-time high, more than 2,200 jobs higher than the previous peak in March 2000.  The Indiana Department of Workforce Development says unemployment in July dipped to 4.7%, its lowest level since November 2007. And, unlike neighboring states like Illinois, Indiana’s labor force is expanding, the state adding 10,000 individuals last month. 

Good stuff. But we’ve got lots of work to do.

Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith says average wages for Indiana Economic Development Corporation-related projects are up about 15% over 2014. But, importantly, Indiana continues to lag the nation in terms of per capita income. And everyone, politicians included, should realize the road back will be a long one.

“It took us 50 years to go from say 20th in wages down to say 40th,” Ball State University economist Mike Hicks recently told me. “It’s going to take another 30 or 40 years to get back up to average. Part of that will be offset by cost of living issues, but that’s a central concern for Indiana policy makers.”

The key to growing wages, and Indiana’s economic future, is talent. An educated workforce that creates a pipeline to fill jobs in a diverse set of industries, from advanced manufacturing to Information Technology to agriculture innovation.

The IEDC’s Regional Cities Initiative is an attempt by the state to help regions and communities help themselves. The initiative, approved by the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly, seeks to build a robust talent pipeline by encouraging regions in our state to collaborate and execute important quality of place strategies.

It’s an $84 million program that needs to work.

“It’s a people play,” said Smith. “This is not shell buildings to go get manufacturers, the economic game here is to attract people.”

While some regions remain beset by partisan bickering and turf wars, others are moving forward with plans to chart an intentional course for the future.

In central Indiana, the plan focuses on the nation’s first all-electric bus rapid transit line, an innovation district and trail and bikeway improvements. According to Indy Chamber Vice President Mark Fisher, “We do well as a region for talent, but we are being challenged by our peer metro areas and quickly surpassed.”

In northeast Indiana, John Sampson and other committed community leaders have been on the regional bandwagon for years.  The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Greater Fort Wayne Inc. are leading an effort to bring together ten counties behind a talent retention strategy.

The Regional Cities of Northern Indiana plan focuses on academic assets as a way to attract and retain talent. The group’s chair, University of Notre Dame Executive Vice President John Affleck Graves, says the initiative can serve as a "catalyst for great things."

“All of our cities and towns in this region have grown up independently over the decades. This is an opportunity for all of us, each of our cities and towns, to grow together," said Graves.

For the first time in memory, perhaps ever, regions around the state are embracing collaboration, seeing it as a strategy for economic survival.

It’s progress that’s been a long time coming.

Proposals seeking Regional Cities Initiative funding are due at the end of the month, with winners selected late in the year.

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