Governor Holcomb recently announced the Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI), a $500 million effort to fuel economic development among self-organized regions state-wide. The initiative encourages collaboration between cities and towns to propose plans to “retain talent today and attract the workforce of tomorrow.”

Proposals may focus on prioritizing physical infrastructure, housing improvements and cultural amenities; an understandable strategy by community developers when grant requests are up to $50 million. These investments can add significant value but can also be expensive in terms of both time and resources, and it can also be challenging to predict the point of diminishing return. This should be a red flag for award recipients responsible for measuring ROI. I would expect that the state will hold regions accountable for their awards, as success or failure of these proposals can be easily measured and tracked – in talent retention and in-migration.

At its core, the READI initiative could be an exercise in retail marketing, and proposal designers would benefit from keeping that perspective in mind. Any experienced marketer who has had to justify their spend would caution against a purely “if you build it, they will come” approach, especially when regions have been challenged to develop “data-driven, actionable and sustainable” plans amidst our current workforce reality:

  • In the most recent U.S. Census, Indiana’s population growth rate was 8%, which was significantly slower than the national average population growth rate of 6.3%.
  • Worse, nearly half of Indiana’s 92 counties are actually experiencing population decline.
  • Overall, Indiana’s supply of available workers is expected to decline for the first time in more than 100 years.
  • College-going rates in Indiana are at their lowest point in recent history at just 59%, a drop in 6 percentage points over the past five years.

Clearly Indiana regions need more sophisticated strategies that go far beyond brick and mortar. Every region in the state needs a calculated and intentional approach to attract and retain talent. READI proposals must make room to invest in the “direct marketing” activities that can be attributed to having an immediate impact on the region’s human infrastructure. Here are two simple ideas that are gaining traction:

Talent Retention:

Regions could incentivize out-of-state undergraduate students who attend an Indiana public university to remain in Indiana by allowing them to apply for a tuition credit if they agree to stay in the state for five years after graduation.

In effect, these new Hoosiers receive retroactive in-state tuition. These credits would average around $80,000 and could be paid proportionately at the end of each year of residence. With tens of thousands of out-of-state students graduating each year, this credit would be a powerful incentive for them to take jobs or pursue remote work in Indiana.

Talent Attraction:

It’s clear now that remote work is going to be a lasting outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic. A “Future of Workforce Pulse Report” from Upwork estimates there will be nearly 40M Americans working remotely in 2025, an 87% increase compared to pre-COVID, creating an incredible opportunity for communities in Indiana to promote affordability, stability, and an overall higher quality of life compared to what is offered by coastal cities.

For smaller communities, attracting remote workers is a cost-effective way to diversify and grow their economies. Bringing their incomes with them, remote workers add to the tax base on day one and are a net new add to the local talent pool. Indiana-based estimates that remote worker households add about $50K in local economic impact each year, making nearly any investment to recruit them an income-generating endeavor.

We are all looking forward to the good thinking and innovative ideas that come from this initiative. Congratulations to Governor Holcomb for challenging Indiana communities to put forth bold and creative proposals through the READI program.

LaMothe is CEO of Elevate Ventures, a private not-for-profit that mentors entrepreneurs and invests Indiana 21st Century funding in high-potential startup companies.

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