Op-ed: Manufacturing tech is leaving Indiana behind. Here’s what we can do about it.
Human Work and Learning

Op-ed: Manufacturing tech is leaving Indiana behind. Here’s what we can do about it.

A female floor worker inspects an automotive engine at an Indiana car plant.
Employees assemble engines at Honda Manufacturing of Indiana on Wednesday, March 5, 2020, in Greensburg, Ind.” | Jenna Watson/IndyStar

A business story in The Washington Post caught my eye recently — and not just because it focused on Indiana. The geographic connection was interesting, but what mattered more was topicality.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the story’s main theme: how to build a pipeline of talent best suited for the work of the future.

The article, by David Lynch, rested on some disheartening data: Although Indiana is among the top manufacturing states in the nation, its production lags markedly behind the rest of the country.

According to the Brookings Institute, in the most advanced industries between 2007 and 2019, Indiana’s output per worker was practically flat, while nationally it soared.

In particular, Indiana is a laggard when it comes to digital production technologies. In a 2020 survey that Lynch cites, only 12 percent of 380 advanced manufacturing and logistics companies reported that machines do most of their work, whereas 45 percent said most production was still done by humans.

Indiana ranks 37th among states in technology investment per worker. That’s nothing to be proud of. At this slow rate of automation, Indiana stands to lose its competitive edge.

But automation tells only half the story. The best technology in the world won’t help Indiana without the workers qualified to operate it. An estimated 85,000 jobs in Indiana go unfilled because of this skills mismatch. And the manpower shortage, in turn, is the fault of insufficient education and training. Here again, the numbers disappoint: Just 1 in 4 Indiana adults hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 36 percent nationwide.

It’s clear that Hoosiers need more digital training. (Brookings even recommends digital skills proficiency as a state requirement for college graduation.) But to succeed in today’s sophisticated workplaces — and in life — Hoosiers need not just more education, but better and different education.

They need training after high school that gives them not only the technical skills to operate smart machines but also the high-level skills to operate as smarter humans.

Human work is just that: work that only humans can do. It requires traits such as empathy, judgment and critical thinking. Beyond a job, human work brings together the things that give us meaning and allow us to thrive over time. Human work draws on three essential capacities: people skills, problem-solving skills, and what I think of as integrative skills.

People skills include the ability to engage and interact with others through communication, empathy and teamwork. Problem-solving is the ability to diagnose and analyze challenges and to think creatively to solve them.

Integrative skills allow us to blend general and technical learning, to combine new learning with what we already know and can do. Integrative skills demand both quantitative and verbal literacy.

The problem, in Indiana and elsewhere, is that far more people need the higher-level learning required by human work than our educational systems are equipped to provide. These systems do a poor job developing the skills required for human work mainly because instruction and training is divorced from the environment in which the work is actually done.

Conexus Indiana is one organization that seeks to change this equation, working with various partners to boost Indiana’s industrial growth by integrating these skills on the “shop floor.”

This summer, for example, Conexus will partner with a Wabash-based social services agency, White’s Residential and Family Services, and its vocational initiative, Growing Teens for Life, to launch a workforce training module called Catapult.

The program is designed to equip young adults with the skills they’ll need for jobs in advanced manufacturing.

Paying them as they learn, the program trains participants hands-on, in real-world settings, with a 160-hour course over four weeks. In a number of locations, Catapult serves unemployed and underemployed adults, as well as some graduating high school seniors and individuals transitioning out of the criminal justice system.

Nearly 90 percent of participants graduate. That amounts to 3,500 people statewide.

As it expands across the state, Catapult can serve as a national model for helping employers build a solid pipeline of skilled and well-rounded talent for the era of human work. On their hiring date, graduates are ready both with the digital/technical skills to work in advanced manufacturing and with the higher-level skills it takes to make that work meaningful.

In short, they are ready for human work, poised to unleash their full potential—and contribute to Indiana’s future.


This article was originally published at IndyStar.com.

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