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“No map exists for the road to recovery from the recession because the global economy is undergoing an unprecedented transformation. Individuals trying to adapt to monumental changes should be mindful of a simple adage: learn new skills.”
-WorkOne Northern Indiana website
If there’s one thing every expert agrees on with respect to finding work in a tough job market, it’s that the modern workplace demands a very different set of skills compared to a generation ago.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a manufacturing environment or a high-tech laboratory. More than ever, employers are demanding workers at every level who can bring a combination of technical skills and “soft skills,” such as problem-solving ability, critical thinking and a strong work ethic.
Moreover, specialists in workforce development emphasize the importance of keeping abreast of employers’ needs in order to better prepare job candidates.
|Greg Vollmer, president and CEO of Northern Indiana Workforce Investment Board|
“We are working every day to determine workplace needs, screen candidates and match the right candidate to the right job,” says Greg Vollmer, president and CEO of the Northern Indiana Workforce Investment Board, which oversees WorkOne in Economic Growth Region 2. WorkOne is a federally and state-funded initiative helping businesses find people and people find jobs. “It’s a simple mission, but we’ve got a multitude of different programs feeding into it.”
Those programs entail a network of partnerships with public schools, colleges and universities, employers and other workforce-training programs. Specifically, they are tailored to the needs of businesses throughout Region 2, which encompasses Elkhart, Fulton, Kosciusko, Marshall and St. Joseph counties in Northern Indiana.
“The greatest misconception about WorkOne is that we are the local unemployment office,” Vollmer says. “And most people think we work only with adults. It’s one thing we do, but we also do a lot of work with youth programs. The No. 1 thing we do is connect individual workers at every age level and career level with job opportunities. We want people gainfully employed in a career that allows them to take care of themselves and contribute to society.”
Toward that end, WorkOne offers a variety of resources that include training, workshops, mentoring programs and job placement services. A team of specialists serves the region to determine the job skills needed by specific employers.
“In addition, responsibility for adult education has moved to the state Department of Workforce Development from the Indiana Department of Education,” Vollmer says. “The goal has always been for workers to attain their GEDs. Now the statewide program is called GED Plus, which includes a career skill component. You’re not going to get the GED just to have a GED. The goal is employment enhancement, either to retain a job with new skills, or to get a new job.”
While it may be possible to get a low-level job without GED (General Educational Development) credentials, employers tend to have higher expectations of employees who have earned them. They are more likely to view those workers as having greater potential for advancement.
Technical skills: Not what they used to be
That said, there is a place in the modern workplace for workers who are not college-bound.
For those workers, one group that works closely with WorkOne is The Apprentice Academy, which was founded in 2007 to help those wishing to build skill levels in auto mechanics, welding, building trades, electronics and more.
Local companies frequently don’t have the resources to devote to technical training for new and existing employees, and they are eager for the training and expertise The Apprentice Academy can supply to fill in that gap.
“Two things make us unique,” says Kelly Nichols, director of adult programs at the academy. “First, because our class sizes are small (typically around eight to 10 students), we can customize a program that’s very specific to an individual’s interests, as well as to a very specific job description.
“Second, we don’t require a high-school diploma or GED,” Nichols continues. “You focus on specifically what you want to do. If you want to do just welding, we are in touch with employers looking specifically for specialists in welding.”
A typical student at the academy has a desire to be productive within six months after he or she has begun training, tending to be more vocationally focused than college-bound. Many students at the academy are placed through Vocational Rehabilitation Services, a state program focusing on workers with disabilities.
The changing role of the two-year college
As the workplace continues to evolve, some entities that formerly focused on technical training now serve a more complex role.
Ivy Tech Community College, for example, is currently expanding its role in workforce development.
“We prepare workers for a level of participation that enables them not only to know how something works, but also to think critically and problem-solve,” says Thomas Coley, Ph.D., chancellor of Ivy Tech Community College-North Central. “We partner with WorkOne to help workers get the job-skills training they need. In addition, we are available as a valuable resource to the community on multiple levels.
“That’s what a comprehensive community college does,” Coley adds, explaining that he has visited many manufacturing plants and has observed significant changes in how they work.
“It’s a very different kind of workplace,” he observes. “You’re not going to be stationed on an assembly line to do the same repetitive tasks all day long. People work in clusters and pods, and they need to understand the entire process, as well as their role within that process. That’s the kind of worker employers expect.”
In response to that changing environment, Ivy Tech has been refining how it responds to the community. The campus in Warsaw, Ind., for instance, developed a curriculum specific to the orthopedic industry and workplace, with coursework and learning spaces organized to train students to monitor, adjust and record materials and processes.
It’s a model that can be adapted for other campuses. Already, Coley sees opportunities for growth in South Bend, including in the nanotechnology research field.
“As we work with the City of South Bend, the Chamber of Commerce and local businesses, we’ll be watching where the industry trends will take us,” Coley says.
|Chuck Knebl, communications manager for WorkOne Region 2|
Surprisingly, despite current unemployment levels, Vollmer maintains that businesses are challenged to find qualified candidates.
“Generally, the problem they run into is finding candidates with the right combination of skill sets,” he says.
Beyond the specific technical skills needed for the job, many workers are lacking the crucial soft skills possessed by good employees, such as communication, promptness, reliability, motivation, respect and teamwork.
“We’ve found in talking with employers that soft skills are vitally important,” says Chuck Knebl, communications manager for WorkOne Region 2. “We encourage people to develop those skill sets. They’re a critical component to employment opportunities, because everyone’s soft skills affect everyone else in the workplace.
“We offer workshops to develop those skills,” Knebl adds. “We have workshops on communication skills. One workshop is about understanding how social media have changed society. And we remind our clients that when they do have an interview, they should remember that the employer is looking at other candidates.”
It’s a very competitive environment, Knebl emphasizes. That’s why he encourages clients to do everything they can to make themselves more attractive to an employer.
For more information about the three organizations profiled in this story, visit: