‘Unique challenges’ come with low unemployment



JASPER — Dubois County has a reputation.

Before Fred Payne, the commissioner of Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development, arrived in Jasper on Thursday morning, he was already familiar with it.

The county tied for the Hoosier State’s best employment rate in the department’s March rankings, and it is consistently at the top of the list.

As a whole, Indiana’s unemployment rate has been below the national rate for more than five years — the most up-to-date numbers placing it at 3.6 percent.

On the surface, those numbers are good

“But that creates unique challenges for employers,” Payne said in a Thursday interview at The Herald. “And the unique challenge is that they’re looking for employees to fill specific jobs. And they’re looking for skilled employees.”

Payne’s stop in Dubois County was part of a trip he’s making to meet with mayors across Indiana. In those meetings, the discussion centers on his department’s thematic approach to bolstering the state’s workforce development system and how the DWD can continue to help.

He met with Jasper Mayor Dean Vonderheide before coming to The Herald, and left The Herald interview to sit down with Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner.

“When we look at Dubois County, we look at some of the good things that are going on here,” Payne said. “Jasper in particular is just a gem. You have a variety of companies and businesses that are thriving.”

He praised local entities for utilizing cutting-edge technology, adding that “you have a mindset that’s both entrepreneurial, but it’s also kind of inviting and it makes you feel at home.”

Payne explained that the state is promoting the concepts of engagement, appropriate training, as well as review and reflection to strengthen its workforce development system.

He believes these ideas are the key to filling the state’s open jobs.

Engagement between local employers, educators and government allow communities to better understand their needs and challenges; appropriate training aims to address those needs from a lifelong learning perspective; and the review and reflection aspect encourages an ongoing assessment of what is being done and what can be improved.

“We want to ensure that we are connecting people to the right training, which ultimately connects them to a job so that they can live their best lives,” Payne said. “We want to make sure that we’re connecting employers to the right resources to people, so that they can continue to move their businesses forward.”

The state’s Next Level Jobs initiative “provides free training for Hoosiers and reimbursements for Indiana employers for training employees in high-demand fields,” according to the program’s website. The initiative’s Workforce Ready Grant promotes the earning of certificates in Indiana’s high-growth job fields at no cost to the student, and the Employer Training Grant helps offset the costs employers incur when training new employees in high-demand industries.

“What we’re doing with our Next Level Jobs program is trying to make sure that we are getting those people the skills that they need so that they can get to and they can obtain those high-paying, high-wage, high-demand jobs,” Payne said.

In addition to that strategy, the state also offers a Jobs for America’s Graduates workforce preparation program that helps high schoolers learn in-demand employability skills. It serves as a bridge to post-secondary education and career advancement opportunities.

Vonderheide told Payne in their meeting that talent is constantly being recruited to the Jasper area, but the approach needs to change to yield more success. He asked about incentives that could be offered to bring more people to the city, and he hopes that the commissioner will spread the word of the high quality of place that it fosters.

“I really liked the conversation we had,” Vonderheide said. “He seems very progressive. He seems to be trying to do the right things to improve the process.”

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