Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Opinion

February 2, 2014

Indiana needs to focus on jobs and education

Don't waste time on distractions, legislators

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.

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