Many steps, one Big Goal

Initiative seeks to increase degrees, credentials in Northeast Indiana

James "J.D." Mathews, photography by Neal Bruns
Ivy Tech Northeast Chancellor Jerrilee Mosier, photography by Neal Bruns
Culinary Arts is another of Ivy Tech's certificate program that leads to employment. photography by Neal Bruns

James “J.D.” Mathews is exactly the kind of person that the organizers of an ambitious new education goal have in mind. He’s 42 and had a good factory job, but he never earned a degree beyond high school. Day after day, working on the factory floor took its toll on Mathews, and when he had his first child, he knew he wanted more out of his life.

So Mathews did what the organizers of the Big Goal Collaborative hope many more will do: he enrolled at Ivy Tech and is earning his way to an associate’s degree in visual communications, with an eye on setting up his own multimedia production company in the near future.

The Big Goal Collaborative is an offshoot of the Vision 2020 initiative overseen by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. Its purpose is to increase the number of Northeast Indiana residents with degrees and credentials beyond high school to 60 percent. It’s a big goal indeed, as fewer than 35 percent of area residents currently hold those credentials. The motivation to increase the number of highly skilled workers in the region is to attract (and retain) high-wage companies and increase the per capita income of the region.

“Sixty percent is a huge, hairy, audacious goal, but we also think it’s crucial to the success of the community,” said the Collaborative’s Director Ryan Twiss. “It’s going to be tough. But there’s general consensus among the people doing this work that we’re on our way.”

Right now, Indiana ranks 42nd nationally in higher education attainment and 41st in personal per capital income, according to information provided by the Collaborative. These rankings put the state, and our region, at a disadvantage when attempting to attract the types of companies that will provide the stable, high-paying jobs the region used to enjoy. Experts predict that by 2018, just four years from now, 60 percent of the jobs in the United States will require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Big Goal is not the only effort under way. It is one of the five “pillars” the Northeast Regional Partnership is focusing on to improve the employment picture, including improving the business climate, encouraging entrepreneurship, improving infrastructure and upping the quality of life. The partnership has identified five “clusters” of industries that it’s hoping to continue to attract: advanced manufacturing, defense/aerospace, food processing, insurance, medical devices and logistics. All of these industries require higher education skills.

The Big Goal follows on the progress begun by the Talent Initiative, a program funded by a $20 million grant from the Lilly Endowment. The Talent Initiative focused on accelerating education and training initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to provide a skilled workforce for area employers, according to information provided by the regional partnership. And the Big Goal isn’t confined to Allen County. Improving the education level of people in the region will help make all of Northeast Indiana attractive to companies from across the country and the globe. By showing businesses that the region is serious about improving its attractiveness will – it’s hoped – set us apart from other areas competing for new businesses and industries.

Cradle to career

The Collaborative is in its early days, with concepts and goals being hammered out by members of its various committees. Twiss said the Collaborative concept was developed as part of the Vision 2020’s five pillars needed to “increase personal income” locally. The Big Goal hopes to reach the 60 percent level by 2025, the year this year’s kindergarteners graduate high school and prepare for higher education. The concept is one state and federal officials are also supporting.

“It’s a cradle-to-career approach,” Twiss said. “We can’t do this in isolation. Collective effort is the way to go.”

In that vein, community partners and funders, including the Lumina Foundation of Indianapolis and the Lilly Endowment, have invested heavily in the Big Goal, hoping to create momentum that will carry the project to completion. There is certainly no lack of enthusiasm for the project.

“We’re going to meet that big goal one student at a time,” said Jerrilee Mosier, chancellor of Ivy Tech Northeast. “We are looking more and more at the kinds of programs that will assist students where they’re at.” That means developing language programs to help immigrants become fluent in basic English as well as fluent in the languages they’ll need in their chosen field of employment, Mosier said. That means developing fast-track programs like the ASAP program in which students can earn an associate’s degree in one year, attending classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily as in a normal job, shortening both the time and the financial outlay. That means working with local industries to develop courses that meet their needs and being flexible about what is emphasized in the classroom.

That last idea is key: the goal gets no closer when students graduate with degrees in obscure ancient religions, because the majority of high-paying jobs in the region aren’t looking for those majors. They’re looking for people well versed in advanced manufacturing techniques, computer terminology and project management.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no value to a liberal arts degree. “Liberal arts add value to critical thinking (skills) and social and civic education,” Mosier noted. “But if you add in a certificate in project management, you have the … savvy to help you be more efficient.”

And traditional universities like Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne are working with Ivy Tech to encourage their students to continue learning beyond the associate’s degrees offered at the community-college level.

“One of the big challenges we have is that we’re not going to reach any of these goals with just high school students. There aren’t enough of them in the pipeline,” said Steve Sarratore, IPFW’s associate vice chancellor for academic programs. “We are trying to find ways to encourage adults to return to college.”

By developing a standard core of coursework – a “single articulation pathway” – from Ivy Tech to four-year Indiana colleges and universities, students who have earned an associate’s degree at an Ivy Tech campus could continue their education at a four-year institution without having to re-take courses, saving both time and tuition.

“We’re working always with the regional industry, sitting and meeting with them to make sure we’ve got the right set of programs to offer them,” Sarratore said. “Like many universities, we are and we aren’t a liberal arts university. We offer a traditional liberal arts degree, but we also have engineering and technology and a variety of health care professions. As we are looking at developing our own programs, we’re working very hard to try to respond to workforce needs. As a large state university, we can’t always turn on a dime, but we work hard to ensure that our programs are working and that if we have programs that are no longer serving a need, we try to move resources into our growing programs.”

For example, IPFW closed programs like Health Information Technology, which no longer met the needs of area medical establishments. And Saratorre said because of changes in teacher certification, “we’ve really seen an almost complete lack of need for the master’s degree in elementary and secondary education. Those used to be our largest programs, but changes in state law have made those degrees essentially unnecessary,” he said. “That’s had a huge impact. And we’ve moved resources into areas like engineering, technology (and) organizational leadership.”

Beginning at birth

The focus here isn’t just on post-high school education for current adults. This is a “cradle-to-career” effort, Twiss said. That means starting at birth, encouraging parents to read to their infants, exposing them to a wide range of words and concepts even before babies can speak.

That’s where programs like Parkview hospital’s “Let’s Talk” initiative comes in, according Mike Packnett, Parkview’s CEO. Let’s Talk provides new moms with resources on how to nurture those vital brain connections built when infants are read to, talked to and encouraged in learning. Packnett noted that 25 percent of area children aren’t ready intellectually to start kindergarten, and those children have trouble keeping up, to the point that they need intensive literacy intervention. Disadvantaged children are particularly vulnerable to illiteracy, Packnett said, noting that by age 3, children in economically disadvantaged families know only half the words that children in more advantaged families know.

“This is a generational effort,” Packnett said. “We can’t turn the clock back, but we have a good start at getting people to realize the importance” of this effort.

Increasing the literacy rate of the next generation of children is key to encouraging those children to complete high school and continue to pursue higher education, thus bumping up the rate of workers with higher-level skills, which will then attract businesses that need those skilled workers. That’s the whole idea of the Big Goal Collaborative.

“We need to develop, attract and retain talent,” Packnett said. “If we don’t do that, we will not be in the game.”

A little background

At one time, Fort Wayne was beating the nation’s per-capita income rate. But that was years ago, in the halcyon days of the city’s manufacturing boom, and now, the region is lagging. The Great Recession hasn’t helped — we lost 30,000 jobs from 2007-2009. Though we’ve regained about half those jobs, many of those lost were high-paying ones that have been replaced by lower-wage jobs.

The Big Goal “all started (as leaders were) trying to figure out how to make (the per-capita income) level go the other way,” Packnett said. With a slow drain on jobs, “you don’t feel it as much. The platform’s burning, but you don’t have a sense of how hot the fire is. When you lose 30,000 jobs, that’s a burning platform.”

And while the trend is now upward (the area’s per-capita income rose 5 percent in 2012, according to the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership), at 81.2 percent we’re still lower than the national average. Our unemployment rate is slightly below the national average, which is another good sign. But it’s those high-skill, high-paying jobs that the Partnership is targeting, a solution that its members hope will improve the overall income level.

Why? Because more income means more spending at local businesses, more investment in local enterprises, more taxes for local government. Attracting new businesses means more jobs, more income for said local government and a more stable employment picture. It’s a win-win all around, supporters of the Big Goal say.

And so the region needs more people like James Mathews to take the time to get back into school, to get that degree, that certificate, that expertise that will give us the edge over other areas. Mathews, who embarked on what he called his “scary adventure” in 2012, will earn his associate’s degree this year, the first person in his family to go beyond high school.

“I knew it was going to be a lot of work,” Mathews said. “But I never did anything for myself in life. You have to make sacrifices in life to be successful. It’s going to be foreign. It’s going to be hard. But it is going to be the best thing in life.”

First appeared in the February 2014 issue of Fort Wayne Monthly.

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