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WIRED for economic growth: $5 million federal grant seeds workforce initiatives.

PLANT $5 MILLION IN workforce development initiatives, then reap well-skilled workers, new entrepreneurial ventures, and an influx of high-paying employers. That's what community leaders in a nine-county Southwest Indiana area hope to harvest after landing a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor under its Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development program, dubbed WIRED.

Since landing the three-year funding last November and using well-plotted plans it developed in preparation, Southwest Indiana WIRED has been at work--getting high school students interested in math, science and engineering studies; hosting boot camps for entrepreneurs; and setting up advanced industry training.

New jobs a goal. "Our strong intent is to drive growth in this region," says Joe Dedman, who became executive director of Southwest Indiana WIRED in March. The organization is based in the Innovation Pointe complex in Evansville, with a satellite office in Petersburg. "We hope this will be a transformational grant for our workforce that will elevate the types of jobs we attract to this region."

A good manufacturing base and strong resources are already in place, Dedman says of the nine counties--Dubois, Gibson, Knox, Perry, Pike, Posey, Spencer, Vanderburgh and Warrick. "The WIRED grant will help us develop the workforce to attract more advanced manufacturing jobs and strengthen the region."

A highly skilled workforce, The skills of local workers is the single most important factor in achieving that goal, says Andy Goebel, retired president and CEO of Vectren in Evansville, and one of the volunteers who came together to seek the grant. "A highly skilled, high-quality workforce is what employers look for first," Goebel says. "This was an opportunity for us to continue to build on our great manufacturing legacy and work ethic, and to prepare our region for the 21st century economy. I call this a once-in-a-generation opportunity. It isn't every day someone offers you a lot of money to help workers skill up for all the advances taking place."

The Department of Labor was impressed with their work, says Pete Ruthenburg, chair of the Southwest Indiana WIRED board and retired chief operating officer of Red Spot Paint & Varnish Co. in Evansville, who got involved in the project in fall 2006. "The Department of Labor cited our implementation plan as best-of-class among the plans and has recommended it to a number of regions for the third wave of funding," Ruthenburg says.

Focused approach. The plan sets five goals: meet workforce needs through education, regional collaboration and focused development; integrate economic and workforce development; create a supportive culture for new businesses; develop transportation, distribution and logistics capabilities; and promote broadband access.

Those goals emerged from a strategic skills study the community had conducted earlier, says Jim Heck, business services manager for the Southwest Indiana Workforce Board, who's on the WIRED implementation team. "We saw we had some shortages in advanced manufacturing and health care. We found transportation, logistics and coal mining were areas we needed help on. And we found the energy area would be facing shortages because of an aging workforce."

The region also has key resources to tap, says Dedman. "Our educational resources include the University of Evansville, University of Southern Indiana, Vincennes University, Oakland City University and Ivy Tech Community College. It has a main campus in Evansville and a satellite in at least half the other counties. Vincennes has two locations, and it's looking at building two technology centers."

Developing a pipeline of students ready to take the coming jobs is one challenge, Heck says. That's being achieved several ways. The University of Southern Indiana is equipping and will take a mobile lab to high schools to peak interest in science, technology, engineering and math. WIRED is teaming with Purdue University's College of Technology to bring Project Lead the Way to middle and high schools, introducing engineering and technology studies. And WIRED will fund scholarships for advanced manufacturing studies.

Last summer WIRED hosted an entrepreneurial boot camp for adults interested in self-employment that will be repeated this summer, and it's launching an entrepreneurial idea club.

"We have to learn how to compete in a global world," Dedman says. "A lot of manufacturing jobs do move overseas. We've seen that. But I think we can compete in this country. With the right skill set and resources, we can compete. I'm not willing to surrender that fight."
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Author:Mayer, Kathy
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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