By Andrew Bradley

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce recently released results from its Employer Survey that reveal a growing demand for skilled employees and also show employers need to be able to increase wages and benefits to secure the workforce they want. Indiana’s policymakers can help employers on both counts by implementing a ‘Good Jobs’ strategy and job quality policies that create a more stable and skilled workforce.

The survey showed an increasing proportion of employers who report difficulty filling their workforce with skilled applicants as a top concern, with 47% reporting unfilled jobs due to a lack of qualified applicants. Those employers have a point – data show a growing gap between the number of in-demand middle-skill jobs and the proportion of Hoosiers who currently have the education and skills attainment to qualify for them. A new report from the Indiana Institute for Working Families breaks down the non-academic barriers (such as childcare, transportation, and stable housing) that prevent would-be students from enrolling, persisting, and completing the training needed for these in-demand jobs. To help fill the skills gap, Indiana policymakers should focus on removing these barriers to adult attainment as they overhaul workforce policies this year.

But beyond skill issues, survey responses about wages & job quality give a fuller picture of why Indiana’s employers have a hard time maintaining a skilled workforce. Nearly half (45%) of employer respondents agree they have applicants who are not willing to accept the pay offered, while the reported lack of minimal educational requirements in those cases was only 27%. That means the Chamber’s own survey speaks to more of a ‘wage gap’ than a ‘skills gap’! In fact, employers’ specific comments about their challenge with filling positions included “offering sufficient benefits/compensation and matching salary expectations.”

This disconnect between employers’ reported difficulty of filling positions and applicants turning down low wage offers reflects Indiana’s policy environment in that keeps wages and benefits below where employers and employees need them to be. Indiana’s wages increased only one tenth of one percent from 2000-2016, among the bottom ten in the nation. Median household incomes are more than $5,000 below the U.S. average as well, and grew so little in the past year that Indiana slipped from #34 in 2014 to #36 in 2015. U.S. Chamber of Commerce data from its own members shows a great majority of employers support higher wage and job quality policies. Nationwide, 79% of surveyed Chamber members supported raising the minimum wage, 73% supported paid sick leave, and 83% supported paid family leave.

So what can be done? Change often starts at home, and employers can take steps to provide the wages and benefits applicants require to be self-sufficient at home and stable on the job. Companies who have problems with applicants turning down offers should seek to ‘transform today’s bad jobs into tomorrow’s good jobs’ by utilizing MIT research to provide wages, training, and skills that will more effectively grow the workforce of the future. These profitable strategies could help give a competitive edge to employers who feel they’d be putting themselves in a vulnerable position by offering better wages and benefits than they currently do.

Indiana’s policymakers should support employers’ efforts by ‘raising the floor’ of wage & job quality policies, such as fair scheduling & paid family leave, at the same time they ‘build ladders’ to career pathways with workforce development initiatives. Improving Indiana’s bottom-dwelling work & family policies will help fulfill employers’ wishes for a skilled and stable workforce and applicant base, help reward high-road employers, and build a high-wage, high-demand business climate that takes Indiana to the next level.

Andrew Bradley is a Senior Policy Analyst, for the Indiana Institute for Working Families.

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