As is the case in most U.S. states, Indiana’s workforce faces a skills gap. Blair Milo is working to help her fellow Hoosiers find answers to this growing problem.
One of four College of Liberal Arts young alumni to receive the Emerging Voice Award in September, Milo (B.A., 2004, political science) has served on Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s cabinet as Secretary of Career Connections and Talent since August 2017. In this newly created position, Milo collaborates with Indiana employers to ensure that the state’s workers possess the skills necessary to fill higher-paying, in-demand jobs.
“(Holcomb) asked me to come and serve in this position that he envisioned to be able to work with all the different state agencies – not just be tied to one of them – and work across the state with all the different stakeholders who have to be involved in this: with local government, with economic development, with schools whether they be primary, secondary, or postsecondary,” said Milo, who served two tours in the Persian Gulf with the United States Navy and was twice elected mayor of her hometown, La Porte, Indiana, before accepting Holcomb’s appointment.
“The kind of talent that he has surrounded himself with was the draw that pulled me away from a job that I really loved, of being mayor, to then be able to serve not only La Porte, but all the communities across the state that are facing these challenges.”
The challenges are great, however.
Milo cited data from the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation saying that by 2025, approximately 60% of the American workforce will need some sort of postsecondary credential, be it a four-year degree, a two-year degree, or a specialized certification. With just 42% of young adults completing a postsecondary degree, U.S. educational attainment rates rank 13th among developed nations according to Lumina Foundation. This leaves many jobs that require medium- and high-skill workers to remain unfilled.
“We’re at about 35, 36% across the state of Indiana that have that postsecondary credential,” Milo said. “2025 is not that far away, so we’ve got a lot of work to do to be able to get people to have a connection with what that’s going to be. There’s great value that comes from a four-year degree, from a two-year degree, from a career certificate for the individuals that pursue them. It’s just a matter of actually pursuing them and identifying what is it that best fits your aptitude and your interest areas.”
Milo has already confronted these issues on a smaller scale as mayor of La Porte – a position she was first elected to hold at age 28. After achieving her first goal of placing the town on firmer financial footing, Milo made economic development a centerpiece of her tenure. Over the next six years, La Porte secured $260 million in new investment, including the addition of the Arconic Plant, an advanced aeronautical manufacturing facility.
In her time as mayor, Milo obtained an up-close view at the issues an unskilled workforce can create.
“We were growing more businesses, growing more jobs, and so we had more jobs than were being filled,” she said. “So the question became, how do we get people into these different types of jobs – either attracting more people to the community or ensuring that the people that we have are getting connected with the skills that they need to take advantage of them? And how do they even know that they exist? Because they look different than how we’ve traditionally viewed some of these industry areas.”
Lumina Foundation reported that four of five jobs lost in the Great Recession were jobs that required a high school education or less – positions it said are now gone for good. Those jobs are being replaced by positions that require specialized skills and training.
Within the next decade, Holcomb expects that Indiana employers will need to fill an estimated one million such jobs.
As part of her cabinet role, Milo is pushing the governor’s Next Level Jobs initiative, which provides employers grants for skills training and covers tuition for Hoosier workers who are seeking industry certifications in fields like advanced manufacturing, agriculture, building/construction, health/life sciences, IT/business services, and transportation/logistics.
“There are a little over 700,000 Hoosiers who started college but did not complete. The good news is that’s down from about 750,000 that we were at a couple of years ago,” Milo said. “And through a great program called You Can Go Back, there’s a lot more opportunity for people who started but didn’t finish to have access to some resources to be able to cross that finish line.”
As the state’s Chief Talent Officer, Milo knows her work will help improve the lives of thousands of Hoosiers, but the role comes with its share of difficulties. As someone who describes herself as “not a super-patient person,” she admitted it takes much longer than she would prefer to implement plans at the state level.
“Things don’t move as fast as they do at the city level, and so having to balance expectations with that is a constant challenge for me. But it was a challenge for me at the local level, too,” she said. “Part of what I think makes me valuable in different positions is that I will drive change. But for me, I have to remind myself at times that there are some differences here and different ways to go about it, so manage your expectations.”
The good news is that the person most responsible for setting expectations for Milo’s cabinet position is Milo herself. She is the first person ever to hold the position of Indiana Secretary of Career Connections and Talent, after all.
By appointing her to the post, Holcomb has authorized Milo to find ways to use the leadership skills she sharpened as a Purdue Navy ROTC student to help the greatest possible number of Indiana workers.
“There’s absolutely great opportunity that comes with a blank canvas,” she said.