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Notes from May’s education roundtable

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The table itself was not round; a series of tables arranged into a square occupied the majority of space in a large meeting room inside IUPUI’s University Conference Center. Around it benched a battalion of government, business and education behemoths; among them were Governor Mitch Daniels, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, philanthropist Christel DeHaan and Indiana Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Brinegar.

The group’s statutory duties include recommending state assessment programs and passing scores. Its vision defines policy, which, in turn, determines the school lives of Hoosier kids.

The table serves as the state’s primary vehicle to bridge elementary, secondary and higher education with workforce and economic development, said Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers in her opening remarks.

Cultivating each link in that chain is part of what some policy types call “economic gardening.” The roundtable’s current gardening mission is to figure out how we can retool our workforce to respond to the current post-stimulus, recessionary environment in a way that sets us up for the best possible recovery.

The radical shifts in workforce realities associated with globalization and the severity and length of the country’s economic downturn call for innovative response, and, said roundtable speakers, “innovation workers.”

Roundtable consultant Graham Toft of GrowthEconomics Inc., said he sees an “exciting new world” in which skill demand is increasing, but where the skills of the under- and unemployed are “mismatched” to its needs.

The trick for Indiana will be not just to educate the nearly 1 million Hoosiers who currently don’t have the skills needed by employers, but also to foster education development in a way that generates personal income growth.

Indiana ranks 41st in personal income per capita, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. It’s a step up from the days when the state ranked 48th or 49th, but certainly offers plenty of room for improvement, Toft said.

Gov. Daniels noted that personal income, which he said is 92 percent of the national average, must always be considered relative to cost of living. Such context takes the edge off our undesirable ranking by pointing out that while we Hoosiers earn less on average than people in most other states, our money, by comparison, buys more.

Our relatively low cost of living aside, Toft outlined a worrisome conundrum that still faces Hoosiers: The nation’s top and bottom five states in educational attainment are both showing improvements in per capita income while Indiana is in a group that’s “simply not budging” in terms of personal income growth.

We are improving in educational attainment, but the element that drives income expansion is missing.

Toft identified a high correlation that exists between the percentage of a state’s adult workforce with an associate’s degree and increases in personal income.

Several speakers, including Toft and Lubbers, emphasized a relative deficiency Indiana exhibits in terms of its percentage of people carrying associate degrees.

The industries growing most in jobs are those with increasing dependence on employees with higher education credentials and tech savvy, not necessarily bachelor’s degrees, Toft said.

“Indiana business needs more innovation workers — not just engineers but lab techs, information editors… They help upgrade productivity, expand markets and they earn more income,” he said.

Toft added that a state’s broadband capacity, research and development investments, business productivity and private sector investment capacity also correlate strongly with greater personal income generation.

But as the state looks to increase higher education opportunity, it can’t escape the challenges plaguing elementary and secondary education.

Ivy Tech President Tom Snyder noted that two-thirds of the high school grads entering Ivy Tech need remediation when they enter.

Another item of interest from Ivy Tech: Fostering supportive “cohort” groups, in which incoming groups of students are encouraged to be connected and supportive of each other, has proven successful in driving a graduation rate over 90 percent in Ivy Tech’s nursing program. Snyder said Ivy Tech is looking to replicate the cohort model in its tech programs, as well.

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