There’s a long line of employers looking for solutions to fill a shallow employment pool.

The explanations of why it exists are almost as long, but here are a few key ones.

Bartholomew County’s unemployment rate has long been among the lowest in the state, meaning fewer people need jobs. In September, its 3.1 percent jobless rate was just one-tenth of a percent higher than Dubois County, which has the lowest in Indiana. The state rate in September was 4.2 percent.

For all intents and purposes, the county is at full employment.

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Along with this challenge, data indicates that about 500 people will retire per year as Baby Boomers begin to exit the workforce, said Kent Fuller, human resources and administration manager at Caltherm.

Caltherm and NTN Driveshaft are among the many Columbus manufacturers that have had difficulty finding qualified employees to fill open jobs. They were among more than two dozen businesses from Bartholomew County that attended Thursday’s Regional Workforce Talent Summit at The Commons.

Caltherm has been challenged to find employees for tool and die, automation and robotics, design engineering, computer-aided drafting and maintenance jobs, for example, Fuller said.

“The economic downturn which occurred had an impact on the skilled trades, and then our economy turned around in a very positive fashion creating very high employment needs in this area and in southeast Indiana,” Fuller said.

The combination of companies not investing enough in the skilled trades during the Great Recession and people with the needed skills seeking employment in other industries created a shortage when the need grew, he said.

Caltherm is involved in several strategies to promote jobs in manufacturing, such as the Manufacturing Educators Partnership and teacher externships, Fuller said. The efforts are to educate students about good-paying opportunities so they have a clear understanding of career possibilities.

“We definitely want to keep our talent in our community,” Fuller said.

Fuller attended the workforce summit and said one of the reasons was to learn about successful workforce development initiatives in the state’s southeast region.

NTN Driveshaft, like Caltherm, has been involved in initiatives to promote manufacturing and attract skilled workers. It too has jobs that have been difficult to fill.

NTN has been part of the Governor’s Workforce Council for the region for the past 3½ years, and before that the Manufacturing Educators Partnership, said Barry Parkhurst, vice president of administration for NTN Driveshaft.

The company has been challenged to fill jobs for maintenance, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and set-up technicians, for example, Parkhurst said.

However, things are improving, he said.

Instead of struggling to fill 30 to 40 jobs, it’s now five to 10 openings.

The Seamless Pathways program, created at Columbus and other high schools and colleges, equips students with science, technology, engineering and math skills that local advanced manufacturing employers need.

That has helped, Parkhurst said.

Also, investing in training and education for employees — such as at Ivy Tech Community College — to provide them with upward mobility has paid dividends, he said.

“It’s very well received. Employees want to see how they can better themselves,” Parkhurst said.

Parkhurst, who also attended the workforce summit, said he too wanted to hear about best practices in the region.

Success stories

Several examples of programs in the region that have had success in promoting awareness of in-demand jobs and develop skills were shared at the summit. They included:Teacher externships: Teachers and guidance counselors during the summer break spend several days touring facilities of local manufacturers to learn about the opportunities available, earnings potential and the skills needed to obtain the jobs so they can share them with their students.

Project-based learning: Students develop a product with the help of local manufacturers and sell it for a profit, with the profits reinvested into the program.

School-to-work: A program where high school students attend Ivy Tech a portion of the time to start their post-secondary education, and also work as interns at local companies.

Jason Hester, president of the Columbus Economic Development Corp., attended the workforce summit and said what he heard reinforced that the efforts being done locally are one the right track, particularly partnerships between high schools, colleges and employers.

“The whole world is working on this, and we need to keep on doing it, and we need to keep doing it as a region,” Hester said.

Pull Quote

“The whole world is working on this, and we need to keep on doing it, and we need to keep doing it as a region.”

— Jason Hester, president of Columbus Economic Development Corp.,

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Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.