Indiana is faced with a monumental work force challenge: we have more than one million jobs to fill over the next ten years.

Indiana’s Jobs for America’s Graduates program is an important initiative of the Department of Workforce Development (DWD), and can play a key role in moving Indiana forward to meet these demands. JAG addresses at risk-youth, and has proven, by our data, to be a highly effective and successful strategy in developing this vulnerable part of our workforce. I am encouraged by the results attained thus far, which helps us make more sound and informed decisions in building a more robust and skilled workforce in Indiana, one that works in concert with the direct needs of Hoosier employers.

However, there is still much more to be done.

Over the past 10 years, the JAG program has proven to be one of the most cost-effective and successful state-level strategies for tackling high school dropout rates, low academic performance, youth unemployment, and other critical issues related to at-risk youth. JAG offers work-based learning experiences for high school students, leading to career advancement opportunities through employability skills training and interaction with area businesses. JAG Indiana students receive adult mentoring and participate in work readiness and leadership development activities, along with follow-up services for 12-months after graduation to help them make a successful transition into college or the workplace, complete with the skills and discipline employers are calling for.

Currently 101 of Indiana’s public high schools offer JAG programs statewide. JAG has impacted over 17,000 Indiana students, resulting in an impressive 94% graduation rate, which is 5% higher than the state average. Last year’s graduating class secured more than $21 million in scholarships. Over the past decade, 88% of JAG students have successfully moved on to either a job in the workforce, military service, or post-secondary education.

While these numbers are impressive, and JAG is becoming another great Indiana success story, the reality is we can do more, much more. There are 407 school districts in the state, supporting 560 public high schools. JAG is operating in 55 of 92 Indiana counties, with double programs in some of the larger schools (a typical program is 35-45 students); however, JAG is only in 18% of our state’s high schools. This is unacceptable.  And we now have the data to substantiate this claim.

The data shows that since inception, the JAG Indiana program has steadily strengthened over time. The growth from the 12 original pilot schools to nearly tripling two years later to 35, then to 58 and up to 101 high schools today, clearly illustrates the interest and demand, and most important – the results. By the end of 2013, the JAG graduation rate was 90%, with more than 3,000 students benefiting from the courses offered during the school year. The graduation rate since then has steadily climbed to 94%. This school year we will have nearly 6,000 Indiana high school students participating in the JAG program, including those out of school in the follow-up programs.

What is the difference that JAG is making in the lives of these students? The JAG specialists are the difference. These are the specially trained instructors and facilitators who are engaging with students to help shine a light into their future. By mentoring and exposing these students to options for their future, the JAG specialists, in working with employers, are opening new doors, guiding them along their sometimes-rocky road with an eye on their future, something many had simply not focused on or been exposed to in the past.

There are more than 500,000 Hoosiers in the workforce today lacking a high school diploma or equivalent. More than 99,000 of these are ages 16 – 24. With 8,000 – 10,000 or more additional dropouts each year, this number is rapidly growing. Over their lifetime, those without a high school diploma will earn, on average, $488,000 less than their peers, which costs everyone.

It takes cooperation for the JAG Indiana program to succeed. To date, approximately 5,000 Indiana employers have engaged with JAG students, providing internships, job shadowing, mentoring, employability skills training and career exploration. With the proven competency-based curriculum, education works together to meet workforce demands and enriches lives.

As the JAG program in Indiana continues to grow, we need to do our part as a state and expand well beyond the 18% of current high schools participating. This is a particularly important and vulnerable demographic that needs the kind of direction and fulfillment programs like JAG can provide. There was a time when we would simply preach, “stay in school.”  Now we have the data to support such a directive, and programs like JAG to make it a reality for everyone.

In the end, we all benefit.

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