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Through Workforce Initiatives, Conexus Indiana Guides Cluster Development

Written by Amanda Maher

Last year, as ICIC researched cluster initiatives in several U.S. cities for our forthcoming report Accelerating Cluster Growth: A Playbook for City Leaders, we spoke with Conexus Indiana, a public-private initiative and “the catalyst to position Indiana as the recognized global leader in advanced manufacturing and logistics.” A recent What Works Case Study discusses Conexus Indiana’s successful model for workforce development in this cluster.

Accelerating Cluster Growth, which builds on over a decade of research and advisory practice in cluster-based development, identifies six key steps for driving cluster growth:

  1. Identify competitive assets
  2. Engage diverse stakeholders
  3. Develop strong public-private partnerships to lead cluster initiatives
  4. Utilize cluster diagnostics to define cluster growth strategies
  5. Use cluster initiatives to replace ad hoc approaches to economic development
  6. Move cluster initiatives to self-sufficiency

In the early 2000s, the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP) commissioned a study to identify the state’s strongest industry clusters and the competitive assets that position these clusters for growth. CICP initially targeted three clusters: advanced manufacturing and logistics (AML), life sciences and health care, and technology.

CICP, already a collection of business and university partners, brought together additional industry professionals to more closely examine the opportunities within AML industries. Industry leaders compared its AML to other AML clusters regionally and nationally. The biggest weakness, they found, was a lack of workforce preparedness. If Indiana’s AML cluster didn’t strengthen its labor pool, the state’s well-paying AML jobs could be pushed overseas. At a very minimum, its dearth of talented workers would hinder the growth of the cluster.

Conexus Indiana is a result of these findings and stakeholders’ early efforts to better understand the cluster. Its first task was developing a series of cluster-based workforce development initiatives.

Programs like “Dream It. Do It. Indiana.” are heightening awareness about opportunities within the AML industry among high school students. “Hire Technology” leverages this newly created interest by providing a two-year AML curriculum to prepare students for jobs that are in highest demand. “Conexus A+ Partners” and “Conexus Interns” provide students with opportunities to spend time with industry professionals where they can work on relevant projects, gaining real-life experience in the process.

Research finds that these cluster-based workforce development efforts are a critical but often under-recognized component to cluster growth. ICIC’s own research has looked at cities like New York City, where tech-based jobs are rapidly outpacing workforce growth, particularly among web programmers and developers, digital designers and engineers. New York City, through the Department of Small Business Services (SBS), responded by establishing two innovative programs: the NYC Web Development Fellowship and the Brooklyn Tech Triangle Internship Program.

As NYC SBS was launching these programs, it engaged ICIC to look at best practices in tech-based internship programs. We found that successful programs deployed a few key strategies, including: focusing on employer needs, overinvesting in employer relationships and providing basic training and support for interns. Through its workforce programs, Conexus Indiana has deployed all three of these strategies.

Conexus Indiana is one of several initiatives through which CICP is catalyzing a series of cohesive, cluster-based approaches.

The final step is to move these cluster initiatives into a stage of self-sufficiency. Right now, Conexus Indiana receives significant support from the Lilly Endowment, including a two-year grant worth over $3.5 million. This funding will sustain existing efforts and allow Conexus Indiana to provide the Hire Technology curriculum at additional schools. One of the challenges facing Conexus Indiana is developing a sustainable business model. Conexus Indiana isn’t alone. ICIC has found that many other cluster-based strategies, like the San Diego Regional Innovation Cluster and the Smart Grid Cluster in Chicago, face similar challenges.

No two cluster strategies will be exactly alike – nor should they be. Accelerating Cluster Growth: A Playbook for City Leaders provides guidance for cities as they customize and deploy cluster development strategies over time. Conexus Indiana provides a strong example of how these six steps can lead to success.

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