Talent summit

U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (left) and Tony Watterson, executive director of Southern Indiana Works, discuss job training Tuesday during a virtual conference.

SOUTHERN INDIANA — Several of the region’s key economic development and skills training officials called Tuesday for more racial diversity in the workplace, better understanding of the job market and increased partnerships.

The inaugural Regional Talent Development Summit was hosted virtually by Southern Indiana Works, and it featured a look back at a tumultuous 2020 as well as a look ahead at the future of building a skilled labor force.

“The conversation that we’re having this morning is enormously important,” said U.S. Rep. Todd Hollingsworth, who was one of the guest speakers.

Hollingsworth said “human capital investment” is crucial in terms of ensuring people have the skills and training necessary to obtain quality jobs and to meet the demands of employers. He added that’s not just found in a traditional education path that leads to a four-year college degree, but that leaders must also provide other avenues for career placement and advancement such as vocational training.

“We have to help kids understand there’s not just one pathway to success,” he said.

The event featured several officials including Fred Payne, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, and Sarah Ehresman, director of labor market intelligence for KentuckianaWorks.

Ehresman provided attendees with a breakdown of data that showed trends from before the pandemic and during COVID-19.

In 2019, the median hourly wage in the Louisville Metro Statistical Area was $18 hour, and the median household income was $61,172.

The data she presented showed that the workforce is aging, with about one in five employees being 55 or older. While the labor force consisted of about 13% Black employees in 2019, Ehresman pointed out there was under-representation in the top occupation groups in terms of the jobs that typically pay the highest and are likely to be career-oriented.

She emphasized that employers must develop plans for inclusion and diversity, especially considering younger generations that will replacing workers are less likely to be white.

The pandemic highlighted differences in terms of what kinds of workers rebounded from the setbacks. According to Ehresman, about five years of job growth were wiped out by COVID-19, but she said white collar jobs were transitioned more smoothly to work-at-home conditions.

“Low-wage workers, on the other hand, their employment levels are still down almost 20%,” she said.

One reason for the slow recovery is because low-wage jobs are more likely to be affected by shutdowns because they require in-person work, Ehresman continued.

The topic of diversity was also discussed by a panel during the summit. Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, said improving diversity must occur at an individual level and not just through macro practices.

“Southern Indiana is not known as the open, welcoming community for people of color,” she said, as Chesser added it’s important for corporations and organizations to also consider representation on boards and not just in employment.

Travis Haire, chancellor at Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg, said school officials identified a gap in enrollment for non-white students and has sought to strategically address the issue.

“It has to be in the forefront,” Haire said of inclusion. “It has to be something that is very focused and intentional.”

Though 2020 was a challenging year, there were success stories along the way.

Tony Watterson, executive director for Southern Indiana Works, listed numerous achievements the organization and its board accomplished in spite of the pandemic.

Those achievements included partnering with schools and universities for workforce training and internships, hosting monthly professional development meetings and collaborating with KentuckianaWorks on a coding course.

Above all, Watterson said Southern Indiana Works wants to empower local businesses and help cultivate a skilled workforce and talent development system.

“We are business-driven. Not only in membership, but in strategy and in our mission,” Watterson said.

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