Newly rebranded Spencer County Economic Development kicked off its fresh course with aplomb Friday, with the organization’s annual luncheon filling the Spencer County Youth and Community Center to capacity. Parking was at a premium as entrepreneurs, officials, business representatives and other local leaders came out to herald the former Lincolnland Economic Development Corp.’s relaunch, with a sharper focus on Spencer County and its people.
SCED Director Heidi Young, who recently marked her first year in that position, welcomed the crowd to enjoy lunch before a series of speakers addressed the county’s workforce issues and potential solutions. Jim Ahl, pastor of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, gave the invocation. Spencer County Veterans Service Officer Butch Meredith led the crowded hall in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Holiday World President and CEO Matt Eckert was the first speaker to take the podium, offering an example of how his company is tackling the issue of attracting new workers in a tight labor market. Eckert freely admitted it can be difficult to find a solution on that front, but he emphasized there are usually ways to circumvent or even overcome these challenges, leaving one’s enterprise stronger for having done so.
“We made the determination that we could not let the problem define us,” he said. “We define the problem, and we find solutions.”
Eckert pointed out the fast-growing theme park has been grappling with its own high demand for workers for quite some time now, even when market forces were more friendly to employers. This led to the creation of the employee transportation program 10 years ago, allowing Holiday World to draw employees from up to an hour away, including Owensboro and Evansville.
“Let’s go to the employees,” he said. “Let’s go get them.”
About 30% of the park’s workforce participates in this program now. However, since 2018 that worker bottleneck had begun to reemerge as the park continued to grow, requiring ever more employees to staff and maintain attractions. By 2022, Eckert estimated the park was operating with 26% less employees than needed. As demand for workers grew in this region, as elsewhere, many younger people chose to take jobs elsewhere who might otherwise have gone to the park.
A little more than 15% of park employees are 14 year olds, 17% are 15 year olds and 11% are 16 year olds.
“About 50% of our workforce is under the age of 18 and that’s problematic,” said Eckert. “They can only do so many things, work so many hours, and we need as many people as we can to help run the park.”
Life guards have been hard to find, among other critical positions related to safely running rides. Short-term solutions recently have included bonuses for signing on or undergoing training for in-demand positions. This proved successful over the last season, allowing the park to operate in full swing. However, that was just one summer. There could be no guarantee the same solution would work every year.
This led to the concept of Compass Commons, the park’s new dormitory for workers from different states, countries or even continents. Eckert showed a 3D modeled walk-through of the building to those in attendance, but noted Compass Commons could soon welcome visitors, and workers, in person.
The dormitory, possibly the first in a series of such projects, is due to come online in time for the May season. The first phase will accommodate up to around 136 guest workers, of which about 95 spots already have tentative claims. Interested parties hail from across the planet, including Thailand, Azerbaijan, Romania, Ecuador, Jamaica and plenty more locales. That experience with foreign languages, cultures and mannerisms could pay dividends, given the park’s strong base of international tourists every year.
“They’re coming here to learn more about our culture,” said Eckert. “But I’d say we’re learning more about their culture.”
With about one million visitors every year, and an eye toward growth, Eckert sees this new investment to drawing in workers from around the world as critical. It remains to be seen how successful Compass Commons will be, but early indications appear favorable. If that is the case, the new dormitory could easily lead to new rides and attractions down the line.
“This will truly be a game changer,” said Eckert. “We’re not going to build anything if we can’t staff them.”
This segued neatly to the next speaker, Ivy Tech Community College Chancellor Daniela Vidal, who noted that she began her education in Venezuela before coming to the United States. She focused on the need to develop the region’s existing workforce, with Evansville’s Ivy Tech campus aiming to ultimately increase its graduation rate to 50,000 certifications and other degrees per year. About 41,000 students completed some form of secondary education through the Evansville campus last year.
Vidal pointed out Indiana consistently ranks low among other states in the field of education attainment, with about 400K Hoosier adults lacking any higher education. Many of these individuals are already employed, which presents a barrier to returning to a traditional classroom. However, Vidal said Ivy Tech’s curriculum is well positioned to cater to adults seeking a career change or advancement according to their own schedules. In fact, more than 67% of its enrolled students are over the age of 25.
“It doesn’t have to be a four-year program,” said Vidal. “That’s really where Ivy Tech excels.”
The number of students making their way through Ivy Tech courses continues to increase. Vidal reported a 30% growth rate in new certifications between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. However, she admitted that the Evansville campus’ 10-county service area left a lot of empty space between its satellite locations. Spencer County is relatively fortunate in that local residents are bounded to the west and east by the main campus in Evansville and its satellite location in Tell City.
Altogether, there were 10,216 students engaged in coursework through Ivy Tech as of last week. Of those, about 4,315 were regular students and 4,065 were high school students taking dual credits.
Vidal expects enrollment to increase in the coming months and years as state employees can now attend Ivy Tech for free as a benefit to develop new skills. These include workers from the Indiana Department of Transportation and Department of Corrections, among others.
Furthermore, Vidal pointed to Ivy Tech’s new IT Academy, tailored to helping students earn certifications in that field. She noted information technology is infamously difficult to build a standard four-year curriculum around, as the industry changes so quickly. Ivy Tech’s specifically tailored programs have a chance to shine in that regard.
Ivy Tech is also partnering with Guild, a platform linking employers and employees with higher education options. This allows local companies to build new talent pools from within their current workforce. For example, Wal Mart is investing heavily in helping its employees earn certifications related to the logistics aspect of the business.
Another major growth industry lies in nursing and health sciences. Health care in general is facing high demand for trained nurses, certified nursing assistants and other positions. Vidal said Ivy Tech is working to tailor its programs to ensure residents in this region can complete training to fill those roles. That means hiring new faculty, clinical labs and other additions, all aimed squarely at increasing the number of qualified nurses in southern Indiana.
“We’re investing heavily to increase our capacity,” she said.
Another rapidly changing industry could stand to benefit from Ivy Tech graduates in the coming years. Vidal said the school is working to keep pace with automotive technician skills, especially with newer diesel and electric vehicles.
“It’s a huge need for our region,” she said.
Lastly, Ivy Tech recently launched a program for entrepreneurship and innovation. The school expected around 10 students for its inaugural course, and wound up with 25, ranging in age from 18 to those in their 60s.
“It’s really the gamut,” said Vidal.
The final speaker of the evening was Linda White, Vice President of Deaconess Henderson Hospital. She spoke of the importance of leadership and courage in business leaders to chart an example for others.
White spoke of the dubious reception Deaconess Women’s Hospital received early in the new millennium, when the prevailing opinion was that a hospital tailored to women, located in what was then farmland in Newburgh, would not succeed. Since its inception, the hospital has continued to grow and is now a pillar of the region’s health network.
“Good things take time,” she said.
White credited her father as her hero, both for his military service and his ability to raise a family and tend to the family business in quick succession early in his adult life. White recalled wanting to attend her father’s Alma Mater, Rose Hulman, but found herself unable to enroll as the school was limited to men at the time. White recalled her father steadfastly writing to the school pushing for this policy to change, generating something of a controversy.
“We had hate mail in our mail box,” she recalled.
While change did not come fast enough for White, her family now has a strong tradition of attendance at Rose Hulman, including her father’s granddaughter. In fact, Rose Hulman now includes a record number of female students every year.
“He helped lead the pack,” she said.
White said recognizing such character traits are important among those close to you. She emphasized that point by selecting someone in attendance at random and putting them on the spot, heavily encouraging them to openly call a parent and tell them how important they have been to them.
The luncheon came to an end with SCED President Jeff Lindsey offering thanks for those who came out to help with the organization’s relaunch.
“After 32 years we are making changes,” he said. “We are focused on results for Spencer County.”
Lindsey left the audience with the message of a high school favorite of his, “Taking Care of Business” by Bachman Turner Overdrive.
Photos and story by Don Steen.
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