Business, education partnerships key for workforce


JASPER — Attracting and retaining skilled workers may be done more efficiently if employers are willing to help their workers obtain those skills.


That was the message Pete Yonkman, president and CEO of the Cook Group and Cook Medical in Bloomington, shared Wednesday afternoon.

“The highly educated weren’t going to come to our door,” he said during the Workforce Retention+Attraction forum hosted by Dubois Strong.

Yonkman and Blair Milo, Indiana’s first secretary for career connections and talent, shared their insights on the state’s workforce with more than 100 people gathered at Vincennes University Jasper Campus’ CTIM building.

The late Bill Cook, founder of the Cook Group and Cook Medical, was quoted as saying, “The best thing you can do for someone is to give them a job.”

“But now, you need skills,” Yonkman said. “So the best thing you can do for someone is to give them an education and a job.”

Two years ago, Cook Group and Cook Medical created My Cook Pathway, which has components that help workers obtain a GED and higher education degrees.

As part of that, the company changed its qualifications for getting a job. Yonkman mentioned that not having a diploma can be a hurdle for people getting a job. In Monroe County, where the company is based, more than 5,000 adults do not have a high school diploma. In Dubois County, the number is more than 2,000.

By going through the pathway program, “You don’t need a diploma to work for us,” Yonkman said. Employees can instead work part time in the mornings and take classes in the afternoon. There are free programs that assist people in obtaining the GED, he said. After that, the person is hired on full time, he said.

Cook Group also helps employees obtain through Ivy Tech Community College an associate’s degree in a field related to the positions available at the company. And the company assists employees with obtaining a bachelor’s or master’s degree through Western Governors University and Indiana Wesleyan University.

“You can see the difference this has made in people’s lives,” Yonkman said. “I’ve asked people why they hadn’t gotten their diploma before and they said they didn’t see the value. What made the difference this time? They said attaching the job to it made the difference.”

There are other challenges people face in the job field — such as having a disability, being homeless, being underemployed, being previously incarcerated and struggling with addictions. While the Cook Group is trying to find ways to address those issues, “We are not good with the first steps of addressing these,” Yonkman said.

The state is also aware of these issues, Milo said.

Family and social services is looking at what it can do to help, “to the extent that we can address the access to the support programs that are state level,” she said. “Some of this will require conversations on the state level. But we are aware of those issues and are looking to take steps to address them.”

Milo also discussed at length how companies could partner with students and adults who are looking to get more skills by offering Earn and Learn programs or work-based learning opportunities. Opportunities like internships or jobs through which the employee learns a skill or obtains education would help build the state’s talent pool now and in the future.

The goal is to get the workforce to understand that education and learning is a lifelong process that continues beyond high school.

“Having access to that post-secondary credential is crucial,” Milo said. “Up to 85 percent of the jobs which kids in kindergarten today will be filling, don’t yet exist. So we need to be nimble enough to meet the changing needs.”

Having positions in which an employee can learn a skill and obtain a degree or certificate in a skill is important, she said.

“Skilled trades have done this well,” she said. “But we need more of this in areas like health care, finance, IT (information technology). We need more partnerships between businesses and education.”

More on