A Brave New World Without Skills Gaps

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A prosperous future - for individuals, companies, states and the nation - goes to the educated, the networked and the high-tech. The fly in the ointment is the "skills gap," which represents the difference between employer job requirements and employee preparation.

In his recent State of the State address, Governor Eric Holcomb defined the lack of education and skills required for the workforce as being Indiana's greatest challenge. I couldn't agree more.

We all know there is a skills gap. We are all concerned about it. We are all striving to do something about it. But the problem lies in the fact that we, to a large extent, have been doing our worrying and acting in isolated pockets. We are all rowing as hard as we can. Now is the time to make sure we are rowing together.

Our universities, both in-state and nationally, have been critical in workforce development and driving innovation. To be a modern university means to have an ecosystem for basic research while also advancing technology and fostering public-private partnerships that will create the workplace – and workforce – of the future.

Some history: In the post-World War II era, many companies established research arms as engines of innovation that drove U.S. competitiveness. Among the most notable of these was AT&T’s Bell Labs, which brought us the transistor and laser and so much more.

As companies have moved away from supporting such open-ended research units, Purdue aims to be the digital-era “Bell Labs” for a range of industries through three-way partnerships among the university, government agencies and industry.

Last spring, the Lilly Endowment and Purdue University held a call-to-action workforce-development workshop that brought together businesses; the state’s community college system; local, county and state government; and philanthropic and non-governmental organizations.

The good news: Indianapolis is increasingly a job-creating technology hub, and companies are noticing that our state is a good place to do business and for workers to live well and affordably.

The bad news: Indiana still has a brain drain. We don’t have enough college graduates. Nearly 90 percent of Purdue’s out-of-state STEM graduates and more than 50 percent of our in-state STEM grads leave the state after earning their degrees. 

In what may be a surprise to many, most of our graduates relocate not to the coasts but to other Midwestern states. So, here in Indiana, we must promote what we are and not fret about what we’re not.

The workshop takeaway was that the best way to turn the tide is through partnerships among public and private entities, new education options, and building new and stronger connections among students and Indiana companies. Successful-but-disconnected efforts piloted in different companies and organizations must be widely shared through a clearinghouse, perhaps hosted centrally by the state.

One promising new model is Purdue’s and the state’s long-term agreement with the India-based information technology company, Infosys. Working together, we will “up-skill” the 2,000 new Indiana employees Infosys has announced it will hire in areas including digital agriculture, cybersecurity, biopharma analytics and artificial intelligence. With the growing need for computer science skills, we’ll “cross-skill” humanities, social science and other majors to contribute to the tech-driven economy.

This initial effort will expand to training and classes for thousands of employees Infosys will hire across the U.S. in the next few years. In the longer term, we’ll also provide Infosys employees with continuing education and help keep mid- to upper-level management employees’ skills relevant and up-to-date. This will go hand-in-hand with collaborations on cutting-edge research and innovation projects.

This partnership – with its critical components of research, education and workforce development – is a prototype for the deep, open, long-term relationships we are establishing with companies to realize our goals.

We’ve set up other, similar partnerships, including one with Rolls-Royce to build better, more efficient, made-in-Indiana jet engines. For Purdue graduate students working on the jet engine research projects, this is a wonderful opportunity to complement classroom learning with real-world business knowledge, such as how to effectively communicate and work in teams. Rolls-Royce not only receives tangible research benefits, but also gets to see potential future employees in action.

So, since that Lilly Endowment-Purdue workshop, we’ve stayed on the workforce-development case. Our professors have continued more and finer-grain Indiana workforce-development research.

If our universities, business community and government agencies continue to expand and create new partnerships, the beneficiaries will be our economy, our workforce and, most importantly, our students. And while I can see the skills gap that exists, I can also clearly see the other side.

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