Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

Business

December 20, 2013

Economist responds to local questions

After Ball State University economist Michael Hicks, Ph.D., spoke Dec. 11 at Hillcrest Country Club at an event co-hosted by the BSU Center for Business and Economic Research, which he directs, and Hillenbrand Inc., it was time for questions.

Chris Lowery, Batesville, a Hillenbrand Inc. public policy and engagement director who helped organize the session, noted the Batesville ZIP code is “pretty healthy economically.” He said “many of us in the room” are probably concerned about the skills gap and age of the work force here. “Where do you think we’re headed?”

Hicks pointed out, “The state manufactures an enormous amount of goods.” In fact, 2013 is the peak year for Indiana in both manufacturing and agriculture, both “extraordinarily important to us.”

He replied that markets will have to adjust when baby boomers retire, which he called “a time bomb for labor.” The profile of factory workers is changing, the director observed. In 2006 half of manufacturing workers had some college experience. Now more that 75 percent of factory new hires have been to college. “That’s a startling number. People are shocked by that.”

He said in the future, plant associates “will look like the operating engineers in a power plant. These are elite workers, upper middle class employees.” Employers desire students who took AP statistics courses, a requirement of Lean Six Sigma, a business concept that improves efficiency.

Indiana leaders are implementing different initiatives to ready students for more sophisticated jobs. Conexus Indiana will use a $220,000 Chase grant for its Hire Technology curriculum program that partners industry with high schools to help fill middle skill jobs in advanced manufacturing and logistics. The program was piloted in nine locations around the state last year, including Batesville High School.

Tyler Stock, a Hillenbrand Inc. senior communications associate, asked about economic growth in general. Hicks reported the U.S. population is growing at 1.1 percent a year, not because of a baby boom, but partly due to people living longer and immigration. He predicted the population will remain static here. Employers are concerned about the supply of local labor and demand for goods if population growth is sluggish.

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