With high-profile issues such as the same-sex marriage debate dominating the public’s attention, it would be easy to overlook other important discussions that are unfolding quietly behind the scenes. But one crucial discussion, which took place this past week in the nation’s capital, deserves the full attention of state leaders and ordinary Hoosiers.
It centered on the critical challenges of improving student achievement and building a more skilled workforce, and it was led by John Lechleiter, chairman, president and CEO of Eli Lilly and Co.
Lechleiter, at a forum in Washington on Wednesday, detailed the growing shortage of STEM graduates in Indiana and the nation. STEM is shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math — skills crucial not only for Lilly employees and other workers in the life sciences but also for a growing number of jobs in other fields.
“I think many people would be surprised if they saw the high-tech nature of manufacturing in our industry and other industries today,” Lechleiter said at the forum.
In fact, about one-third of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry require STEM-related skills. Other growing industries need workers with similar abilities. But, as a new study commissioned by the pharmaceutical industry noted, the U.S. now ranks only 20th in the world in the proportion of STEM degrees rewarded.
That gap translates into lost opportunities for businesses and individuals. John Castellani, who leads the drug industry’s trade organization, said that an estimated 600,000 jobs in the nation’s manufacturing sector go unfilled because employers can’t find qualified workers. In Indiana, the most manufacturing-intensive state in the nation, that’s especially bad news.
Lilly isn’t waiting for state and national governments to act. It’s forged local partnerships to steer more students into STEM studies, and the Lilly Foundation has donated $1.5 million to the Indiana Science Initiative to create a challenging science curriculum for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
But state leaders need to hear Lechleiter’s message — and similar messages sent by other top business executives — loud and clear. It’s essential that Indiana build a better-educated workforce, and, in an increasingly competitive global economy, it’s essential that we make that goal our highest priority.
The state has taken important steps forward in recent years by building a community college network, adding full-day kindergarten and, under Gov. Mike Pence, re-emphasizing vocational training.
But the General Assembly lacks a sense of urgency. Lawmakers insist on wasting time and energy on distractions such as the same-sex marriage amendment. And an overly cautious, go-slow attitude tends to permeate legislative chambers.
Businesses such as Lilly, however, can’t afford to go slow. Neither can thousands of Hoosiers who are looking for better livelihoods and a higher quality of life today.
— The Indianapolis Star