Tomorrow's Manufacturing Work Force 'Made in Indy' at JA JobSpark

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Back when today's 8th graders were in kindergarten listening to their teachers read aloud, the story of manufacturing in Indiana looked like anything but a fairy tale. Manufacturing employment had been declining for decades and economic turmoil around the housing crisis pushed the numbers even lower.

But a new trend has taken hold over the last eight years. As those kindergarteners grew up, manufacturing in Indianapolis and across the state has grown every year, too - more than 80,000 new Indiana manufacturing jobs since 2009. And as our 8th grade students learned their lessons and made it to the verge of high school, manufacturing's also gotten smarter.

Ask "older" Hoosiers about manufacturing careers, and you may get some outdated ideas - standing on an assembly line in an old-school factory. But those of us who work in the industry know there's a reason we typically say "advanced manufacturing" these days.

Today's manufacturing facilities are filled with computerized equipment, robotic systems, tech-savvy workers with cutting-edge skills. Employees need to be problem-solvers who think on their feet, with the knowledge to run the latest production technologies. And off the factory floor, there are plenty of good jobs in business, IT and logistics making sure things run smoothly and products made here get to customers across the globe.

Manufacturing careers have changed; most positions require more education and technical skills, and earn bigger paychecks. But it's harder for manufacturers to find qualified employees: The Indiana Department of Workforce Development estimates that by 2024, Indiana will need to fill nearly 120,000 job openings in production - roughly 22.500 of vacancies will be in and around Indianapolis, and that only represents part of the total hiring needs of local manufacturing employers.

That’s why it’s critical to reach out to young people, even in middle school, to educate and enthuse them about the exciting opportunities in manufacturing.  They’ll be the young adults coming out of college and certificate training programs to help fill these daunting demand projections.

One program that Eli Lilly and Company and other Indy-based advanced manufacturers have embraced is Junior Achievement’s annual JA JobSpark event.  JA JobSpark is a two-day hands-on career expo (coming up on September 26-27) at the Indiana Fairgrounds that allows Indianapolis 8th-graders to explore potential careers through experiential learning and interaction with local employers from fast-growing industry clusters.

Advanced manufacturers, health and life sciences companies (and many, like Lilly, fit multiple categories), professional service firms and public sector agencies, hospitality businesses and high-tech ventures – hundreds of employers who drive Indy’s regional job growth set up shop at the Fairgrounds to create meaningful, up-close experiences for 8th grade students from across Marion County.

Junior Achievement has built a broad coalition of participating companies, non-profit and government partners, business groups like the Indy Chamber and others to help coordinate JA JobSpark, which is a massive undertaking: Thousands of volunteers, dozens of schools, and hundreds of teachers working together to reach more than 8,500 students with a look at the opportunities that could be waiting for them after they finish their education.

For advanced manufacturers, the numbers spell out the urgency of participating – and investing time and resources – in initiatives like JA JobSpark.  Indy ranks 16th among U.S. metros in per capita manufacturing jobs, and is three times more concentrated in automotive, aerospace and transportation equipment production than the nation.

Indiana still ranks #1 among states in per capita manufacturing employment, with a total workforce of more than 530,000 employed by its 7,100+ manufacturers.

But behind these impressive numbers is a more foreboding one, to accompany the employment projections noted above: In the 2016 Indiana Manufacturing Survey conducted by Indiana University, more than 70% of responding employers report a moderate or severe shortage of skilled workers.

Fixing these numbers takes an aggressive approach – vocational programs and a full-court press on workforce development efforts to meet today’s urgent needs, but also looking towards the future through experiential programs like JA JobSpark.  It’s not too early to get children excited by the prospect of making anything from lifesaving medicines and orthopedic devices to supersonic jet engines and high-performance racecars.  The future is now – and for this year’s 8th grade class, it starts in late September at the Indiana Fairgrounds.

David Sternasty is vice president for corporate engineering and global health/safety/environment for Eli Lilly and Co.

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