Gov. Mike Pence convened a "business roundtable" at Vera Bradley on Wednesday to listen to ideas from local leaders, and he also took the opportunity to promote his own legislative and business agenda.
Eighteen business, economic development and government leaders joined Pence at Vera Bradley headquarters in southwestern Allen County. He asked them for their ideas on the opportunities and obstacles for business in northeast Indiana.
Much of what he heard reiterated familiar themes. Representatives of several manufacturers, including General Motors, said they have significant problems finding enough technically adept workers. But even that was not a universal lament.
Scott Glaze, the president of Fort Wayne Metals, said his company is well pleased with the quality of its workforce. That satisfaction is not a lucky accident. He said the company does a lot of testing to screen applicants and much training once hires are on the payroll. Internships are crucial to building a good workforce, too. "We have a very robust intern program," he said, adding that the company brings in about 25 interns a year.
The governor is promoting beefing up vocational education for high school students as a way to fill some of the gaps in the state's workforce, but he also sees it as likely to "improve the graduation rate." A bill that would create regional work councils as part of this enhanced vocational education passed the state Senate unanimously this week, Pence said.
Beyond the stronger emphasis on vocational training, Pence said the state's strong and improving fiscal condition allowed him to propose a budget that provides more money for education and roads, among other increases, while still cutting personal income taxes and taxes for most small businesses.
Pence said he has high hopes for "applied research enterprises" at state universities. These would clarify the relationship between companies that fund research projects and universities in which faculty and students perform or aid in that research. He said these could not only attract more research funding to the schools, but also spin off companies nearby, encourage students to remain in Indiana and lure outstanding faculty members.
Glaze remarked that Fort Wayne Metals has a good research relationship with Purdue, which Pence described as being farthest along the road to working with businesses. But Glaze also said that he'd like to work more with IPFW in the same way; unfortunately, it is not as easy as working with Purdue. He asked Pence to investigate smoothing out the obstacles in working with smaller state schools.
John Hopkins, the chief operating officer of Sweetwater Sound, said his company does not sell musical instruments to schools, but it has a strong interest in seeing music remain a part of school.
"Abandoning music education and the arts is a missed opportunity, and maybe a very large one," Hopkins said.
"I've been married to an art teacher for 26 years, so you're not the first person to mention that to me," Pence said, smiling.