A labor shortage in Bartholomew County that has been affecting local industrial employers has spread.

Every business in every sector is now struggling to find enough qualified workers, said Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

It’s become a profound employment problem, said Kurt Kegerreis, director of the 10-county Indiana 9 Workforce Board, Inc., who recently gave a workforce report to the Bartholomew County commissioners.

The local jobless rate is consistently among the lowest of Indiana’s 92 counties, with December’s 2.3-percent rate tied for fifth lowest in the state.

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But any employer in the Columbus area will confirm there is a bona fide worker shortage, Kegerreis said.

“It’s not a bunch of job seekers looking for work,” Kegerreis said.

“It’s a bunch of employers looking for job seekers.”

Bartholomew County has more than 1,400 unfilled jobs, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said late last month.

That creates a challenge to get residents connected with programs and skills they need to fill those jobs, the governor said.

Technology’s impact

If one reason stands out from others for why jobs go unfilled, it’s changing technologies, said Kathy Oren, executive director of the Columbus-based Community Education Coalition.

Local efforts to create a labor force capable of handling evolving technology are largely being driven by the coalition, Oren said.

With its largest regional initiative, the EcO Network (Economic Opportunities through Education) of Southeast Indiana, the coalition largely promotes training in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

Its main focus is on filling positions in the manufacturing, health care and information technology, Oren said.

Employer partners in EcO meet with higher education officials monthly, develop a calendar of career awareness and outreach activities, and work to hire more students into various work-based learning opportunities, Oren said.

Other educators collaborate with employers on education pathways, work-based learning, career awareness and outreach strategies in support of student success, Oren said.

One key supporter in EcO is the Bartholomew County Manufacturing Education Partnership. The group works on a significant number of initiatives locally to attract more students into science, technology, engineering and mathematics in ways that meet the needs of manufacturing employers, Oren said.

Those ways include high school internships, as well as instructing teachers on real-world manufacturing, she said. Extensive discussion on expanding apprenticeship programs is also being held, Oren said.

While the Community Education Coalition has been widely praised for both establishing and following best-practices, its efforts won’t bear fruit overnight nor address all current concerns, she said.

Workforce obstacles

Although technical training doesn’t necessarily require four or more years of college, Oren acknowledges the cost of education has risen much higher than inflation.

About one-third of high school graduates in the Columbus area say they cannot afford to pursue an post-secondary education, she said.

Discouragement among people who are out of work also stems from factors such as a lack of transportation, poverty issues, or lacking access to the internet, Kegerreis said.

What is frightening many employers is that the entire workforce is being increasingly eroded by the opioid crisis, Kegerreis said.

His office is working with Indiana drug czar Jim McClellan to create a pilot program that provides recovering addicts with new jobs and living environments, which can help reduce the risk of relapse.

“I believe we’re doing good work,” Kegerreis said. “But we’re chipping away at a mountain of a problem.”

The so-called brain drain has long been a challenge for south central Indiana, where students or workers are lured to another part of the country, usually for better pay or living conditions.

Reaching out

When all factors are considered, there’s little choice but to recruit talent from elsewhere and bring them to south central Indiana, Frey and Kegerreis said.

Columbus launched a talent-attraction campaign, known as Columbus Talent, which initially ran from December 2016 to March 2017. Led by the Columbus Economic Development Corp. and the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, the program targets individuals seeking job opportunities who live one to four hours away through an online jobs site.

That includes the metropolitan markets of Indianapolis, South Bend and Ft. Wayne, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Peoria and Champaign, Illinois.

The campaign helps job seekers see appealing components of living and working in Columbus by highlighting community, recreation and networking opportunities. The website, columbustalent.com, lists dozens of available positions at local employers in job categories such as engineering, finance, marketing, health care, information technology and technical and production. It target individuals ages 25 to 35, markets career opportunities available to that audience and aligns them with jobs open in the community.

Working with Digital AIM, which is associated with The Republic, the campaign’s second marketing wave from Dec. 26, 2017 to Feb. 1 reached about 200,000 potential job-seekers through social media and an estimated 500,000 combined using all outreach components, said Ian McGriff, Digital AIM’s digital marketing sales director.

The second marketing push targeted New Year’s Resolution job seekers and recent graduates, McGriff said.

Statewide programs

While organizations such as the Community Education Coalition are addressing long-term solutions, Indiana workforce officials are bringing their own resources to the table, Kegerreis said.

One of the programs in place is WorkINdiana, which enables adult Hoosiers to improve their skills in an classroom, and earn a career certificate, Kegerreis said.

Another called Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) strives to keep at-risk youth in school and provide work-based learning experiences, he said.

The state has almost doubled the funding for WorkINdiana, as well as doubled the amount of JAG programs in the region, Kegerreis said.

In addition, the first bilingual JAG program in the state was established in District 9, as well as the first JAG program co-funded by a school, Kegerreis said.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.