Japanese business leaders have concerns about finding enough skilled workers to fill openings at their Indiana-based operations, including in Columbus.

So as part of Indiana’s seven-day trade mission to Japan, which ends today, Gov. Eric Holcomb worked to assure Japanese executives that jobs programs in the Hoosier state are working to meet their needs.

The trade mission, Holcomb’s first as governor, sought to strengthen ties with companies that already have operations in Indiana, as well as seeking new investment.

Indiana is home to more than 280 Japanese-based business operations. Indianapolis and Columbus have far more of them than any other Indiana city, with 26 in Columbus and just a few more than that in the state’s largest city.

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“We heard time and time again, ‘We’ll hire if we find people with the skills to fill the jobs,” Holcomb said.

The governor said having local officials on the trip such as Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, Greater Columbus Economic Development Corp. President Jason Hester and Jennings County Economic Development Commission Executive Director Kathy Ertel was advantageous in that regard.

“This allowed us to tell how we have addressed workforce concerns,” Holcomb said.

The governor shared with Japanese economic and business leaders the state’s efforts with Skill Up Indiana! It pays students to enroll in the program, where they learn skills and earn certifications needed in the manufacturing industry so they can potentially be direct hires for companies.

Since applications were first accepted in January, about 47,000 people have visited the program’s website, 30,000 of them have started an application and more than 5,000 have completed the application, Holcomb said.

“We know people want to skill up and give themselves a pay raise. That is music to (Japanese) businesses ears,” the governor said.

The Indiana delegation met with companies that have local ties, such as Toyota Industries, Toyota Tsusho Corp. and NTN Corp., which operate Columbus, and Aisin, which has a presence in Jackson County.

The governor said it’s important that Japanese officials understand Indiana’s workforce efforts because it is competing with other states for economic investment and jobs. The governors from Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska also attended the Midwest U.S.-Japan Association Conference in Tokyo, Holcomb said.

“It’s an uber-competitive environment,” Holcomb said.

Providing Japanese companies with a robust, skilled workforce to help them grow and expand is important because Indiana has more than a partnership with Japan. It also has a friendship.

Not only is Japan the largest foreign investor in Indiana, but the state and Tochigi Prefecture have a sister-state relationship that dates to 1999. Also, 13 communities in Indiana have sister-city relationships with Japanese cities. Columbus has had a sister-city relationship with Miyoshi since 1994.

Holcomb said he comes away from the trip feeling good about Indiana’s relationship with Japan and the prospect for additional investment from companies.

“The feeling is the sky is the limit and optimism in Indiana,” the governor said, citing the health of the state’s economy and business climate.

What's next

Before departing Japan Friday, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb will meet with Aichi Gov. Hideaki Ohmura to discuss ongoing opportunities for economic collaboration between Indiana and Aichi Prefecture, which is the manufacturing center of Japan.

After returning to the U.S., Holcomb and state economic officials will work with local officials to create a list of action items from the trip.

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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.