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Indiana’s Brain Economy

In a letter to the Indianapolis Business Journal entitled “Opportunity Doesn’t Require a Bachelor’s Degree,” I shared the reality that many of today’s technical jobs such as cybersecurity engineers and software developers are really more like trades than roles that require bachelor’s degrees from a university. They are something akin to the plumbers and electricians of the data economy. By citing statistics from Indiana’s own Commission for Higher Education reports, I pointed out the dismal success rate of an education system designed a century ago to turn out farm workers and factory workers, which was modified in the 1960’s around the aspiration of “college for all”, and how it’s now a become gigantic financial monster fed by the stigma of failure if your own children don’t make it through. That monster results in an average of $27,000 in debt for each student diploma, though few get one: 7 out of 10 high school graduates this spring will not have earned a bachelor’s degree in 4 years, and over 3 in 10 never will.

As a business leader, I see that not as a failure, but an opportunity. What we need is a system that trains all of our high school graduates to take a role in the data economy and provides starting jobs for all of them in our companies in this state. Then if they elect to carry that training forward into 4-year and 6-year degrees, they do so with the assurance that they have universally marketable skills and the maturity that comes with having relevant, practical job experience. In doing this we will differentiate Indiana as a “brain engine” ready to rev up any company that is smart enough to move here to take advantage of it.

Many of us believe this can be achieved not by launching yet another new program or commission or board, but by a reorganization and simplification of the resources we’re already spending in Indiana on education and workforce development. All too often well-meaning legislators and politicians latch onto small but successful programs in their own districts, roll them up into funding appropriations and bills, and then our executive branch departments are saddled with yet another administrative burden on top of all the others, with little ability to condense, shut down or pursue their own innovation. Our proposal explicitly doesn’t launch yet one more set of ideas into this pile, but instead requires us to rethink and to realign what we are already doing.

First, we need to decide what we mean when we say, “cybersecurity engineer” or “software developer.” No clear standard for these job roles (and many others) exists in our State, nor even in our country. We’ve been approximating this for years through certifications offered by product manufacturers, such as Microsoft or Cisco, which aren’t really the same thing. Education institutions are left to their own devices to decide what these roles really are, and then how to teach them. This problem is on our industry itself – we need to first be clear about what we need before anyone can be asked to obtain it, and then perhaps ask our higher education intuitions to each own a group of, and police the standards. Other industries have figured this out: If I wanted to get my haircut today, the barber would have to be licensed by the State of Indiana, but if I wanted to build a multi-million dollar IT system, no license is required. We have determined standards and build an education and verification system that lets the consumer know a person can cut hair, but we’ve not done this yet for the technology industry. Time to fix that.

Second, we need a system of delivery of that education that is based not on competing intuitions but on geography. We do not need yet another new institution, but an alignment of the ones we already have. High school students can barely afford to put gas in their own cars if they even have access to one, and as a result, they can’t be forced to go to some city far away from home to attend a class. We need to look at all of our State’s existing higher education facilities and map them to high schools on a local level. Thus, if you are a student at Noblesville High School and Ivy Tech has a campus there, then that is your campus, vs. a student in Fishers that might more conveniently attend Eleven Fifty Academy for their training. Consistent delivery is key, as the training must be uniform and uniformly delivered on the local level, and leverage as much online training as possible in order to provide the flexibility and cost savings that these new technologies offer.

Third, we need a financial incentive for businesses all over our state to open up apprenticeships for graduates of these programs. Importantly, these apprenticeships must be offered not just technology businesses (who are already doing so of their own accord), but every business, from manufacturing to transportation and logistics to agriculture, that needs to be transformed by the digital economy. To achieve this, we can simply look to our job tax credit system and offer state tax credits to businesses who open up these roles in order to reduce their risk and cost and enable them to open up more spots. Of course, we won’t need to sustain that incentive system for long, as companies see the impact these young people can have on their company, they won’t need the same level of incentives to keep opening new jobs. It’s key to see that technical trade level job creation is economic development, pure and simple. If I open a job today at my company and hire someone from say, Illinois, I can capture a State tax credit, but if I open up an apprenticeship for a high school student, I get no tax credit. Which job is more important to our future?

The end goal, of course, is a guaranteed trade education along lines blessed by industry, and an apprenticeship that converts the book learning to hands-on experience for all 70,000+ Indiana high school graduates each year, every year. That’s why it’s more powerful to place these elements in reverse order, in the actual order of importance. If a robust apprentice system were first in a place that encouraged tens of thousands of apprenticeships to be posted across our state, it would be much easier to align our delivery mechanisms and circle in on the proper standards. None of this requires new programs, nor even new laws. What it requires are industry leaders to step up lead simplification and reform of our system away from a stigmatized financial monster and towards a differentiating brain engine for the digital economy.