Impact Institute working to fill gaps in local labor force

Article by Steve Garbacz of KPC Media

Some programs have seen recent surge in enrollment

KENDALLVILLE — Impact Institute alone can’t fix the problem of businesses and industries needing more skilled workers, but the vocational education center is always open for more ideas on how to help out area employers.

Impact Institute is providing training and education to about 600 high school students and 700-800 adults annually across several different vocations, and that’s at least helping to fill some of the need, director Jim Walmsley told the Kendallville Economic Development Advisory Committee Monday.

“We’re a piece of the puzzle. We’re not the puzzle, unless someone wants to open up the floodgates and provide a tremendously high level of financial capacity,” Walmsley said.

The EDAC invited Walmsley to its meeting to discuss the role Impact Institute plays in building the workforce and what, if anything, local development groups can do to help the school in its mission.

The committee is continually searching for ways to help boost the local economy, and a shortage of skilled labor is one problem many employers are reporting.

Walmsley started by summing up the role Impact Institute is playing right now for the 13 school districts in five counties it serves: providing students a solid set of skills to allow them to enter the workforce or to prepare them for further postsecondary education aside from a four-year college degree.

Walmsley said vocational education used to carry a stigma as a place for students who weren’t college-bound, high academic achievers. That’s changed in recent years as efforts have been made to break down that stigma and show students they can have fulfilling and high-paying careers in trades.

“To have a vocation is a good thing. There’s nothing negative about that,” Walmsley said.

As firms struggle to find qualified employees to fill positions, certain programs are experiencing a surge in interest, Walmsley said.

For example, the welding program used to enroll about 40 students, but now has 60-70 and has Impact Institute considering ways to expand it in the future. About 30 students are enrolled in the machining program, which gives them a base set of skills to enter in-demand machine shop jobs.

About 95 percent of students will go on to job placement or further education a year after leaving Impact Institute, although that number doesn’t indicate how many students are following the same track they started on. Staff members are working on collecting that data in-house and talking with students before graduation to determine what their plans are.

For example, students may enroll in the automotive program because they are interested in working on cars as a hobby, not necessarily as a career, Walmsley said. In cases like that, Impact Institute staff members want to make sure they have a plan, even if it’s not to pursue a job as an auto mechanic.

Other programs, especially in-demand jobs, have very high placement rates.

“The kids that have the right skill in our welding program, they’re going to go to work,” he said.

With enrollment of about 625 students, Impact Institute isn’t at capacity but does face some limitation by the number of students a high school can send. Although the state has boosted efforts to fund and encourage vocational education, a school district will spend about all of the per-student funding it receives to pay tuition for Impact Institute programs, Walmsley said.

One other constraining factor Walmsley highlighted was that students are less likely to know about the opportunities in their own communities, therefore they may never think twice about vocational programs.

A high school student may get bombarded by recruitment materials from universities or community colleges, but they’re less likely to hear about opportunities from industries in their hometowns.

“We know what we know, and we don’t know what we don’t know,” Walmsley said. “In terms of growth and trying to get more students involved, that is as much a part of kind of marketing what we do and marketing the opportunities that exist inside our own community. We don’t tell the story very well of the opportunities that exist in our own community.”