Green jobs demand an energized workforce

By Joe Loughrey

Last week, a delegation from the U.S. Department of Energy visited Central Indiana to finalize a $118 million grant to Indianapolis-based EnerDel, the only current U.S. manufacturer of lithium ion batteries for hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles.

Leveraging this grant and private investment, EnerDel is creating more than 1,400 new jobs in Central Indiana, building a new manufacturing facility in Greenfield.  It’s a major economic success story for the region.

EnerDel is just part of a growing ‘green vehicle’ industry in the state.  Last year, Think North America chose Elkhart as the site of the first U.S. factory for its line of electric cars.  In Anderson, Bright Automotive is also engineering state-of-the-art plug-in hybrids.  Established Indiana manufacturers like Cummins, Remy, Delphi and Allison Transmission are also major producers of hybrid components.

We can be proud that Indiana is a leader in putting electric vehicles on the road, helping our environment and making the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil.  Taking advantage of the growing market for plug-ins and hybrids is also good for Indiana’s economy.  But we do face a longer-term challenge to sustaining and strengthening this leadership position in the green economy – educating the next generation of employees for this fast-growing, rapidly-evolving industry.

The factories that produce hybrids and plug-ins are increasingly high-tech, just like the cars themselves.  These vehicles feature microcontrollers and other advanced technologies, along with the standard automotive electronics – installing, testing and troubleshooting these components takes a skilled workforce, with technical training beyond high school or two-year associates degrees.

It’s not just the green automotive industry that requires more educated employees.  There are very few ‘low skill’ jobs left in manufacturing in general today.  In a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (‘A Leaner, More Skilled U.S. Manufacturing Workforce’), economists divided manufacturing jobs into low-, medium- and high-skill and observed that between 1982 and 2002, high-skill manufacturing occupations grew 37% while low- and medium-skill jobs declined 24% and 18% respectively.

Indiana boasts a rich reservoir of engineering talent and a strong manufacturing workforce – it’s a key competitive advantage that allowed us to attract companies like EnerDel, and why other clean technologies firms are looking to locate and expand in the state.  But to maintain this edge, we have to ensure that our workforce pipeline stays strong, with young workers getting the right degrees and certifications to take advantage of advanced manufacturing careers in electric vehicles and other high-tech fields. 

Initiatives like Conexus Indiana are hard at work bringing private industry and higher education together to create up-to-date manufacturing training programs, and marketing these career paths to young people through its ‘Dream It. Do It.’ campaign.  Purdue and Ivy Tech Community College received a $6 million federal stimulus grant to create specific degree and technical programs for electric vehicles, and the state’s Department of Workforce Development is also focused on green job training.  At the K-12 level, it’s critical that technical education programs are spared from budget cuts to get students on the right track early on.

These efforts have to be a top priority for policymakers, educators and manufacturers alike.  Pursuing economic development without a parallel focus on education will ultimately frustrate the ambitions of both the companies that can’t find skilled workers to fulfill their growth plans and the Hoosiers who find themselves unqualified for better jobs. 

Announcements like EnerDel’s are great news for Indiana’s economy; a steady supply of talented workers has been a catalyst for this success.  But we also have to keep a proactive focus on tomorrow’s workforce to keep the momentum going.  Looking ahead, degrees and certificates awarded are economic development metrics just like jobs and investment – the path towards a green advanced manufacturing economy for Indiana starts in the classroom.

Loughrey is the retired Vice-Chairman of Cummins, and chairs the Conexus Indiana and Energy Systems Network initiatives for the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership.