Half Past the Month

January 17, 2018

A FAVORITE QUIP comes from the provost at my daughter’s college. In a moment of candor during freshman orientation he told us parents that there is only one thing in the world that is exactly as it seems — “professional wrestling.”

I would add to that, “political proposals to fix imbalances of any sort in advance of an election year.”

The governor has set the defining issue of our decade the retraining of 55,000 “lost” young workers who didn’t finish their education and need supplemental instruction. As this winds its way through the General Assembly, you will want to get a ringside seat.

At the least, it will provide the rationale for dumping more millions into a system that has failed job seeker and employer alike — that and provide the governor at least something on which to hang a reelection hat.

But the governor is right that we must address our relatively small workforce. That is according to Rich Raffin, an owner of Raffin Construction Co. in Chicago and a speaker at a recent seminar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Raffin warned that an inadequate work force is a primary reason more companies won’t be moving from Chicago and Detroit to Indiana’s otherwise more favorable tax and regulatory climate.

And yet, the governor’s initiative is only a nominal improvement on the current practice of allowing the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and the Higher Education Commission to play around with tax credits or huge college campus projects, both in the name of job “creation.”

So we asked a friend, an expert in labor resources, for her thoughts.

She began by saying that the effort need not be merely a political pose. She noted that the modern all-volunteer military in its ham-handed way is able to determine the skills and inclinations of its recruits and assign them to more-or-less appropriate billets, some of them highly technical, with reasonable success if not sublimity.

That is done through testing and various other personnel-assessment methods including the guesswork of grizzled petty officers. It is a notoriously imperfect process and more corporatist than some of us would prefer. It is better, however, than spending taxpayer money retraining both the willing and the unwilling for imaginary jobs on ships that have already sailed or ones that will never arrive.

And regardless of the class of citizens that the Statehouse elite might prefer to govern, economies are not driven by specialists. They are driven by willing, productive workers of the general sort — as you find them, not as you might wish them to be, on the ground and not in the sky. They will specialize — or not — on their own, not by government decree.

Finally, it is hoped that the governor will be able to wrench control of job training from the Higher Education Council and put it in the hands of the Workforce Innovation Council, a group made up of private-sector executives better attuned to matching industry supply to labor demand (if that, in fact, is a job of state government).

A first step might be to determine how many of the governor’s 55,000 have the soft skills to hold down a job; a second would be to determine how many really even want a job — two matters of importance to any employer.

Trigger warning: politically incorrect judgment is required from here on out.

That first attribute of minimal employability could be determined by including on the high school transcript this check box: “This student required no extraordinary disciplinary action.” You might go further and include experienced assessment from teachers and counselors on how well the student takes direction from superiors, gets along with fellow students, shows up on time, completes assignments, etc., . . . subjective, perhaps, but you get the idea.

The second attribute, whether the student really wants a job, could be determined by his or her willingness to waive confidentiality and release the school’s assessments to prospective employers.

Given even that little information, how much more would school attendance, degree or not, mean to an employer? For teachers know their students, even and especially those on the margin between becoming full members of society or those in danger of falling through the cracks. They care about such students, deeply and expertly.

If even half of Indiana’s “lost” young workers could credibly show themselves by their school record to be serious employment prospects, that would fill almost a third of the governor’s estimate of workforce needs — instantly and at little expense.

Retraining? Employers can largely handle that, or at least do a better job than a bureaucracy fiddling around until the next election cycle deciding which jobs need what retraining and by whom.

— Craig Ladwig


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