JASPER — A new state-level talent attraction initiative and employee retention were the two big topics discussed at the 2019 Dubois Strong Workforce Retention and Attraction Forum Thursday.

Business and community leaders from around the county gathered at Vincennes University Jasper Campus for the event, sponsored by LIVEwireCW, a new co-working space in Jasper. During the roughly two-hour forum, Indiana Secretary for Career Connections and Talent Blair Milo presented the 21st Century Talent Regions, a new initiative from her office focused on getting leadership to think regionally and collaboratively about talent attraction and workforce development.

After Milo’s presentation, Marti Coffey with Applied Composites of Indianapolis; Elaine Graber, manager of workforce planning and organizational development at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana in Princeton; and VUJC Dean Christian Blome presented a panel on employee retention.

In Milo’s presentation, she laid out the 21st Century Talent Regions initiative that kicked off in January. Under the program, regions are self-defined areas that include multiple counties, cities or neighborhoods working together to build and implement a plan to meet workforce needs in the region. To be designated as a region under the program, leaders from local businesses, K-12 education, higher education, economic development, workforce development, local government and nonprofits all have to be involved in the effort. Some regions have also involved philanthropic and faith leaders in the plan, Milo said.

The goal of the program is to break down barriers between different fields that have a stake in workforce retention, the community and attracting new talent.

“Multiple stakeholder groups and that collaboration can be challenging because there is really critical work that everybody is doing in their various spaces,” Milo said. “So ... what if we are able to provide a vehicle for organizing all these different pieces ... and then could help align all the efforts that really do need to happen?”

Milo stressed that her office is not trying to replace any groups or organizations at the local level. Rather, she said, she sees her office’s role as being the backbone that can hold the collaboration together and offer the support needed to sustain partnerships.

Milo added that the world of work is evolving and changing faster than employee pipelines can adapt, leading to a gap between the skills new employees have and the skills employers are looking for.

“We’re thinking about how do we better connect people to these opportunities while also thinking about that talent piece,” Milo said. “The world of work is changing faster than we’ve ever seen it change before. How do we certainly meet the challenge of today while not being so myopic that we’re not building the pipeline that we need [when] those jobs are going to look different in a small amount of time?”

The 21st Century Talent Regions looks to answer those questions. So far, Milo said, two regions have been recognized through the program, one group of counties in the northeast part of the state and a network of six communities in the southeast part of the state. Locally, Milo said, the Regional Opportunity Initiatives — which covers Dubois, Brown, Crawford, Daviess, Greene, Lawrence, Martin, Monroe, Orange, Owen, and Washington counties — is discussing earning the designation. Milo said there have also been early conversations about Dubois County being included in a region with some counties to the south as well. If both groups end up earning the designation, Milo said, Dubois County would be the first county to be included in multiple regions.

The initiative’s end goal is to have every county in the state included in at least one region, Milo said. From there, it’s a matter of each region working within itself and within the state as a whole to develop the talent needed to prepare Indiana for the future.

Once Indiana businesses attract the talent, they need to be able to keep those employees. That was the focus of the second part of the forum. Coffey kicked off the session with a presentation on the basic benefits employers need to provide employees to get them to stay. Some of the obvious ones, she said, include competitive wages and benefits, transparent communication between leadership and employees and a “what’s in it for me,” or a clear path to career growth.

“Employees really want to be involved in something that’s bigger than themselves,” Coffey said.

Some of the less obvious keys to employee retention, Coffey said, are a strong front end — which means an intake and training process that makes new employees feel like part of the company — and a company culture that aligns with the company’s mission and stated values. Coffey emphasized that every time leadership passes down a new policy or process, they should be able to point to something in the company’s mission or values that the change supports.

Coffey also recommended having “stay interviews” where employers talk to their employees about what they like about the company as well as what could be done to improve. For the younger generations, Coffey said, flexibility and regular feedback is also key.

“They’re used to constant feedback,” Coffey said. “That once a year review isn’t going to cut it with them.”

As part of the panel, Graber shared that having a referral program that offers current employees a monetary bonus for recruiting people they know has helped with retention, especially in the more labor-intensive positions.

“[The employees] know the job and what it takes,” she said. “They’re recommending people they think can do the work.”

Graber also said that program helps because employees are more likely to stay in a job where they have strong relationships with their coworkers, and employees tend to recruit people they’re already friends with. Graber also talked about Toyota’s onboarding process, which spans several weeks, giving new employees not only the chance to be well trained in the job they’re hired for, but also the chance to form friendships with coworkers who are hired around the same time.

Blome talked about VUJC’s efforts to provide training and degree programs geared toward the needs of local industries. He mentioned the new Automation and Robotics Academy that offers dual credit and work-learn opportunities to local high school students, and the Career Advancement Partnership, a work-learn program for college students pursuing associate’s degrees.

“We hope that each of those programs can be a pipeline for local businesses,” Blome said.

He also mentioned several noncredit trainings VUJC offers that local companies can leverage to help their employees gain some of the skills necessary for advancement, including workplace English classes for employees who primarily speak Spanish and workplace Spanish classes for employees who primarily speak English.

Although the forum offered no perfect solutions to local businesses’ struggles with employee attraction and retention, it did offer several resources and ideas for how to move forward. Several presenters pointed out that it’s not an easy problem to solve.

“It’s like death by 1,000 paper cuts,” Blome said. “That’s how we’re going to tackle the issue.”
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