By William J. Lowe, Ph.D., Chancellor, Indiana University Northwest
The economic prosperity and future success of our nation, and of Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland, depends on our intellectual capital.
Now, more than ever, due to the complexities and competitiveness of an interdependent, globalized economy, colleges and universities, locally and nationally, must prepare students for the expectations of a working environment rich in information, technology and innovation.
As chancellor of Indiana University Northwest, I am proud to say that my colleagues and I take this charge seriously. We produce graduates for the “Knowledge Economy.”
And, without a doubt, Northwest Indiana needs these graduates.
The presence of college graduates in a region is closely associated with economic growth, higher incomes and an attractive quality of life. It is a topic that will be central to the upcoming sixth annual Summit on Regional Competitiveness, hosted by the Alliance for Regional Development and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
But according to recent data from the Northwest Indiana Coincident Economic Index published by the IU Northwest School of Business and Economics, our region continues to face challenges in sustaining economic growth, including the need to increase the number of college graduates.
Despite the unemployment rate falling to around 5 percent, real income per person in Northwest Indiana has not increased since the end of the Great Recession, while it has grown 1.4 percent per year nationally.
Much of this is related to the types of jobs in Northwest Indiana. According to the Coincident Economic Index, 79 percent of local jobs are service-based, with the largest and fastest-growing service-based industries in the region being relatively low-paying retail stores and food service. But the abundance of hourly jobs competes heavily with college attendance and for every one percent decline in unemployment, a university in the region can lose five percent of its enrollment, along with potential degree holders.
To compete more effectively in the Chicago mega-region, Northwest Indiana must look beyond our service-based, heavy industry and manufacturing legacy to build a more diversified economy that employs and invests in our region’s college graduates and attracts new, well-credentialed and well-paid residents and professional businesses. Economic growth in the Knowledge Economy is the focus of Ignite the Region: Northwest Indiana’s Strategy for Economic Transformation (Sept. 2018), the Northwest Indiana Forum’s regional economic development plan.
Up for the challenge
IU Northwest stands ready, with resources, knowledge and expertise, to help students fulfill their potential, earn their degrees and be transformed into the innovative forward-thinkers our region needs. A well-educated and versatile workforce is, as the data suggest, one of the essential factors in attracting and retaining Knowledge Economy development, jobs and investment.
But we also need you. We need the leaders of Northwest Indiana and Chicagoland who employ and manage college-bound or college-enrolled employees.
While in college, I was very fortunate to have held hourly jobs with employers who not only valued my work but often evinced pride in having a college student work for them.
From dishwasher to delivery driver, it was those roles that provided me with valuable working experience and career lessons from which I learned a great deal that contributed substantively to building my professional future.
So, I ask this of local employers: Please encourage the college students who work for you to make progress toward completing their degrees. Provide them with the necessary accommodations so they can successfully balance the competing responsibilities of college, work and family. And, most important, show them that you care not only about their futures but about the future vitality of this region.
By doing so, employers will contribute to a “virtuous cycle” that pays off in a better-educated, more economically prosperous region, ripe for the challenges and opportunities of the Knowledge Economy.