Upskilling for Economic Mobility

by Thomas P. Healy

In August, the Indiana Institute for Working Families, a program of the Indiana Community Action Association (INCAA), published the Status of Working Families Report 2018.

The report examines the economic outcomes for working people around the state since the end of the Great Recession. Author Andrew Bradley, senior policy analyst for the Institute, recently discussed the section of the report that focuses on the importance of improving access to education in order to increase economic mobility.


While workforce development efforts tend to target high-tech employment, “There are good reasons to focus on high skill, high-tech jobs because they very often pay the best wages,” Bradley said. “But as the report notes, statewide high skilled jobs are only one quarter of the job openings we see.”

That fact led him to highlight what he terms “middle skills jobs”—jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. “We show that nearly half of jobs projected between now and 2025 would be middle skills jobs,” he said. “A worker simply cannot come in with a high school diploma and strong back and get a job anymore.”

In addition, Bradley said his research found that almost half of all jobs opening over the next decade are middle income at best. “Part of the report talks about what’s happening with Indiana jobs in the 21st century and making sure we’re not headed to a low-wage future,” he said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics cited in the report, Indiana has the highest rate of working poor families (defined as below 200% of federal poverty level) among 12 Midwestern states. These Hoosier families were hit hard by the recession, and while Indiana’s unemployment rate is low, so is wage growth. “While many might be working, it’s at low-wage jobs,” Bradley said. “We have to increase wages of most common occupations if we’re serious about getting them upskilled. If you want to transform Indiana in the next two to five years, you need to focus on adults who are already at work in low-wage manufacturing or service industry positions.”

Hoosier Workforce Shrinks As Baby Boomers Retire

“When we’re thinking about how to shape the workforce for 2025, we need to upskill and have people ready for middle-skill and higher positions.” he said. While acknowledging worthwhile initiatives like the state’s Next Level jobs and Workforce Ready Grant programs, Bradley says non-academic barriers need to be removed. “There are some really practical things that are keeping people from upskilling—transportation, childcare, lack of internet at home. It’s the folks who face these barriers—that’s where the state has to turn to next.”

Bradley expressed optimism that expanded transit options through implementation of the Marion County Transit Plan will help with transportation issues. “One data tool on our website is the self-sufficiency standard calculator. It generates costs, one of which is transportation,” he said. Access to dependable public transportation reduces monthly costs. “What you could save is about what it would cost for tuition for Ivy Tech for a semester,” he said, adding, “Improved access to training or employment opens up opportunities.”

ECONOMIC MOBILITY: Public Transit Connects People to Opportunities

Employers can also raise job-quality standards by providing paid family leave and paid sick time. “If people are being forced to choose between job and family, not only does the family suffer but also the workforce overall suffers,” he said. “Raising job-quality standards allows companies to be high-road employers and create a more stable workforce.”

A version of this article appeared in the October/November 2018 print edition.