A popular call for action these days implores us to create more jobs domestically and retrieve jobs that have slipped overseas.
While there is nothing wrong with doing either or both, the truth of the matter is that northeast Indiana – and other regions in the country – already have thousands of jobs that can't be filled. Parkview Health and Lutheran Health Network combined reported more than 1,300 job openings in December, other companies have announced openings in the dozens or hundreds, and virtually every week a company relocation or expansion demands that numerous jobs be filled.
The situation is bound to get even more challenging. Counting expected job growth and positions that will need to be filled to replace an increasing number of retiring workers, up to 118,368 jobs will have to be filled in the next decade in northeast Indiana.
The stark reality is that with regional county unemployment rates predominantly in the 2- to 3-percent range, there simply aren't enough people to meet the workforce needs of our employers – now or likely in the future. No industry is immune to the problem. All industries are scrambling to address it.
Some companies are offering benefits on the first day of employment, some are waiving high school degree requirements, some are resorting to temporarily bringing in workers from other states, and many are raising wages. And still, many positions remain vacant. Many employers are merely luring employees who are already in the regional workforce.
Robust talent development, attraction and retention initiatives in the region, provided they are sustained, offer long-term solutions to the dearth of workers. Career and Technical Education training and career awareness programs at the high school level and incumbent worker training bring the promise of filling the region's higher-skilled jobs. Efforts are also afoot to encourage people who have left the area for college or work pursuits to return.
But in the near term, employers would be wise to explore several underutilized talent pools and make whatever reasonable accommodations are necessary.
One of those pools is people with disabilities. Old National Bank, with the support of service providers, is leading an initiative to learn from employers what will be needed to ensure people with disabilities have opportunities to enter the workforce, succeed personally and help businesses prosper.
Employing people with disabilities may require some creative scheduling to preserve the financial assistance that population receives, and certainly it will mean developing an inclusive workplace culture. There is no doubt, however, that people with disabilities are generally eager to contribute and often possess employability skills employers covet, such as loyalty, dedication, trustworthiness and punctuality.
Another group of potential employees are people who are about to be or have just been released from incarceration. Some may have served time for crimes that would give employers pause – in fact, would prevent those people from being considered for certain employment opportunities. But many people who have spent time in jail or prison have skills that are needed in the workforce, and gainful employment would improve their chances of succeeding on the outside.
Employers should also continue their commitment to hiring military veterans who, like people with disabilities, have valuable employability skills and who often are adept at desirable technical skills. Additionally, the value of legal immigrants to our regional workforce – no matter their term of stay – cannot be understated.
We have on our side in all of this a truly collaborative region where it is now customary for numerous stakeholders to work together to address workforce and economic-development challenges. Now more than ever we will need that unity of purpose to meet the 21st century needs of employers.
Kathleen Randolph is CEO of Northeast Indiana Works, the region's nonprofit workforce development organization.