READI grants will positively impact communities across the State and naturally, there is a lot of anticipation surrounding this opportunity. My advice is to take a collective breath and consider playing for keeps – think long-term and be thoughtful, inclusive, and strategic.

Strategically for Indiana, the READI grants are an opportunity to improve our overall economic development condition. We have room for improvement, as many of Indiana’s industry sectors have failed to increase productivity compared with other states according to Brookings data. Productivity lag affects all aspects of the Indiana economy, with agriculture being the state’s only industry operating above the national average.

From the report: Indiana’s manufacturing productivity levels previously ranked above the national average but have fallen to meet the rest of the nation since a peak in 2007. Among the least-productive sectors in Indiana compared to national counterparts is the information sector, of particular note because the information sector is characterized nationally by higher growth rates, higher-paying jobs and higher levels of educational attainment.

At its core, READI is designed to provide access to an accelerated talent development. It gives regions the financial means to skill-up workers for entry into sustainable, fast-growing areas like tech. And this can be a community-improving game changer for the state’s most vulnerable populations.

As the talent shortage overwhelms the globe, Indiana businesses experience the same struggle in finding qualified individuals to fill open jobs. The state currently has 7.6% more job openings right now than it did in January and February of last year before the outset of COVID. Even though the talent shortage was a problem pre-pandemic, it looks very different now due to the reduced labor participation rate and lack of required skills to obtain a high-quality job. Population growth is another challenge for our state.

To address these challenges, Indiana’s state and local leaders need to enact policies and support strategies that prepare all eligible people to participate in the workforce actively and purposefully. One of the largest opportunities for growing the workforce lies in many disadvantaged populations that were already more negatively impacted by COVID. For the most part, these folks often do not have a voice or a seat at the table for the strategic economic development decisions, like READI grant-making. Yet, these are the very voices that we should be hearing from. A rising tide raises all ships, and simply by intentionally including our vulnerable communities who have long been neglected, the funding now exists to help bridge the gaps in infrastructure, workforce, and many other areas needing an equitable shift.

I have long been a proponent of investing in people. Investing in talent while simultaneously focusing on quality of place will go a long way in underserved areas. Initiatives providing opportunities to enter sustainable careers impact the individual, their family, and their local community, and regional economy.

To visualize a very specific example, let’s look at a population that is overlooked: justice-involved individuals. This is truly one of the largest, untapped talent pools. On any given day in Indiana, roughly 47,000 individuals are incarcerated in various facilities. Another 100,000 are still on criminal justice supervision like probation and parole. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27% — which is even higher than rates during the Great Depression.

Most of these individuals want to work, but unfortunately face structural barriers and intangible stigma that impedes their ability to secure living wage – or sometimes any – employment. Being incarcerated is destabilizing to someone’s life, and 38% of Indiana offenders facing re-arrest within just three years of release. Encouraging, though, is the fact that educational advancement and gainful employment are two of the highest-contributing factors to lowering recidivism and improving public safety.

Second chance hiring also addresses the problem that many companies are facing as they compete for a shrinking talent supply. To offset potential concerns among employers, programs like The Last Mile can build confidence among participants and companies that may hire them. This program teaches coding in prisons to help returning citizens transition from incarceration to a promising career in tech. To date, they have a presence in five of Indiana’s state correctional facilities. Other initiatives around the country offer opportunities to skill-up and ultimately re-employ returning citizens. American Prison Data Systems has tablet technology that securely allows inmates to finish high school, participate in vocational training, earn valuable credentials, receive mental health supports, and more.

Imagine how different the labor market would look if we were intentional about upskilling and employing justice-involved individuals. READI is one funding option for expanding opportunities among disenfranchised populations to create more equitable community outcomes. Thankfully, several existing and promising programs are a great place to start, as many of them would benefit from additional investments. Change at scale is the goal, after all.

Look no further than Indianapolis for examples of collaborating organization that are making waves and creating replicable models of success. Eastern Star Church has long held the reigns of meeting its community’s needs and its recent infusion of partnerships with InnoPower, The Indianapolis Recorder, Martin University, Eleven Fifty Academy, Ivy Tech Community College, and Rooted School has changed the game. Their scaled efforts are being funded by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment. It’s early in the game for hard results, but so far, the data is promising.

With the READI grant strategies, we can’t leave anyone on the sidelines, we need everyone in this game.

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