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GUEST COMMENTARY: Working together to answer 'Ready for what?'

Date: 4/9/2015 through 4/9/2015
Don Babcock is NIPSCO's director of economic development

Several recent reports contain good news, further good news, and a bit of bad news, related to student preparation for college and careers in Indiana and the Northwest region. We are making progress, and we are working on the right workforce and education issues.

The first piece of good news: NWI college readiness is up 11.2 percent as reported by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education for graduating seniors. Comparing 2011 and 2013 Northwest Indiana high school graduates, readiness increased from 71 percent to 82.2 percent (up 543 to 3,899 students) — an 11.2 percent increase from an already higher base, compared to the state increase of 8.4 percent. That's worth celebrating.

The second bit of good news is that Indiana's public colleges and universities produced 20 percent more degrees last year than in 2010. Further good news is that on-time college completion rates have increased, with ICHE reporting a 40 percent increase in the number of students completing their degrees on time. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse showed that in Northwest Indiana 200 more high school graduates went directly to local colleges in 2014 than in 2013. That's more reason for celebration.

So our high school students are graduating better prepared, more of them are going directly to college, and our colleges are graduating more of them on time.

Where's the bad news in all of this? Indiana actually lost ground in the past decade on the percentage of 18- to 34-year-olds holding at least an associate's degree. Indiana's gains in education levels have come almost entirely from our 35- to 64-year-old population, some of whom returned to school during the last recession.

Fortunately, several organizations are working collaboratively in Northwest Indiana to address this issue. The READY NWI initiative, now five years old, brings educators, employers, and other community leaders together to align the education and skills levels of our students to the specific requirements of our regional employers. Twenty-seven of our region's school superintendents have now signed the READY NWI Commitment, pledging to work collectively by sharing best practices and data, and ensuring that all students have plans for careers and post-high school education and training needed for success.

Our region's colleges and employers have also committed to assisting regional K-12 schools by showing students career paths that are both available and affordable in the region. Employers are participating by hosting tours, by participating in a video series to showcase jobs in the region, and by providing internships for students. Colleges are providing new resources for K-12 schools, providing intensive counseling, and creating dual credit structures to give students a head start on college.

The Northwest Indiana Workforce Board provides a research base for regional action and keeps moving the needle as well. Information from employers and economic developers provide policy direction for the WorkOne system.

The Regional Works Council focuses specifically on Career and Technical Education pathways that lead to high-quality jobs. Credentials from new and existing programs provide cost-effective routes to immediate employment and can also be "stacked" toward two-year and four-year degrees.

Finally, the Center of Workforce Innovations provides a local-driven, ongoing staffing base to support and coordinate all of these efforts.

So to answer – Ready for What? Ready to fill whatever the current and future jobs Northwest Indiana has to offer. Ready to help lead and create a brighter future for all of us — that's real cause for celebration!

You can read the article from The NWI Times here.

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