Although a high school diploma is still sufficient to get many jobs in the region, education beyond high school is becoming increasingly important in the workforce, and parts of northeast Indiana are lagging behind others.
Steuben and DeKalb counties are within the top third of Indiana’s 92 counties for populations with some type of post-high school education, but Noble and LaGrange counties are more toward the bottom of the rankings, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Among the four counties, 51.5 percent of people in Steuben County have education beyond high school, while it’s 47.5 percent in DeKalb County, 43.3 percent in Noble County and 30 percent in LaGrange County.
Among the 92 counties, Steuben County ranks 23rd overall, DeKalb County is 32nd and Noble County is 60th. LaGrange County ranks last at 92nd, although the ranking is skewed by the county’s large Amish population, many of who don’t advance beyond a middle-school education.
The percentages include people who have any education above a high school diploma. Within the Census categories that includes people with “some college” but not degree as well as people who have obtained associate, bachelor’s or graduate degrees.
All of the county rates are lower than the rate of Indiana as a whole — 53.2 percent — although that number is skewed upward by some highly populated counties with high education rates. For example, Hamilton County on the northeast side of Indianapolis has about 310,000 residents and a post-secondary education rate of 80.2 percent.
Steuben and DeKalb counties’ education levels beat the average of the 92 counties, 46.7 percent, as well as the median county rate of 45.1 percent, while Noble and LaGrange counties both lag behind.
Educational attainment is noteworthy because higher education is strongly correlated with higher wages.
In Indiana, median wages for Hoosiers with a high school diploma is about $30,000. Wages increase to about $32,000 for people with some college education or an associate degree, and then rise to $40,000-$42,000 for people with bachelor’s degrees.
That’s not to say a college degree is necessary for employment; it’s quite the contrary in the region, where many employers will hire workers for entry-level positions when they’re right out of high school.
But increasingly employers are looking for some type of further education, said Jim Walmsley, director of Impact Institute, which provides vocational training to students from a dozen high schools in the region.
“I think the high school diploma certainly is enough, but people need to be prepared to go beyond that,” Walmsley said. “Something beyond high school, I think, is really a requirement.
“This is not about a four-year degree for everyone. This is about something that provides a level of skill that business and industry is looking for,” he said.
There are plenty of jobs in industry where workers can earn high wages — higher even than a lot of jobs people with a bachelor’s degree would get out of school. But they’re jobs that require an additional level of training beyond an entry-level factory gig.
Welders, for example, are in high demand and earn high wages. But in order to get a welding job, an employer is going to want to know that a person has completed welding training.
Some high school students are able to get that training through vocational courses at Impact Institute, but even then they may need to pursue a further training course or use credits from some dual-credit Ivy Tech courses to complete a two-year degree in order to secure a better job, Walmsley said.
“It’s about matching a skill set with the job, I think, and not just taking a broad stroke view of, ‘Well, if I go to college, I’ll make more money in my lifetime,’” Walmsley said.
The task of “leveling up” Indiana’s workforce is one plank of Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2018 agenda. While the governor wants schools to give students more STEM education and job skills, the state is also seeking to increase options for adult education and work training.
“Students should graduate from high school ready to go to college, pursue meaningful training and employment in a field of their choice, or with skills to go directly into a quality job,” according to the 2018 Next Level agenda. “Working age adults should be connected to education and career training that is aligned to industry needs and leads directly to employment.”
Increasingly, the task of getting people ready to pursue education beyond high school is starting in K-12, as schools prod students to think about careers.
For example, schools will program in activities that highlight and celebrate the educational achievements of their own staff, such as by encouraging teachers to hang up decorations and tailor some assignments around their alma maters.
In East Noble School Corp., for example, the No Excuses University program is a way to expose youngsters to the idea of education beyond high school and to work on building “soft skills,” like promptness, critical thinking, communication and collaboration with others and work ethic.
Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year degree, but it means looking into the future at least a little and discovering what it would take for a student to achieve whatever her or his current dream job is, Avilla Elementary School Principal Dave Pine said.
“We set goals and ask our kids to think about what they need to meet those goals. Going to college isn’t necessarily a goal, but the skill sets and habits that need to be formed have to be formed at a young age,” Pine said.
Post-high school educational attainment
Overall: 53.2 percent
Counties average: 46.7 percent
Counties median: 45.1 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau