If Indiana starts now, Steve Braun thinks the state could be the first to take a serious run at using its education system to dramatically cut unemployment.

The Zionsville Republican has been nurturing an ambitious idea for the Hoosier state: applying cutting-edge data techniques from the business world to harness information he thinks could solve what today seems like an impossible mystery — knowing in advance what skills will kids need for the kinds of jobs that will be available on the days they graduate high school or college.

Steve Braun
PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Steve Braun

Braun, a Harvard graduate who built a successful company into a leader in business intelligence — a process of using wide arrays of data to solve complex problems — thinks those very techniques could provide an answer.

“If we get it right we will really set ourselves apart,” he said. “But this is not easy. This is hard. It took big companies 20, 30 or 40 years to figure out how to use data and hold people accountable for using data.”

But that notion of accountability for schools, especially the suggestion that it’s a responsibility for educators to assure their students are prepared for specific jobs, raises eyebrows.

Even if that sort of expectation is years, if not decades, in the future, as Braun suggests, just pursuing it as a goal would mean at least some redefinition of the very purpose and process of public education.

That makes some educators nervous.

“I don’t know what the workforce will look like in eight years,” Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said. “Technology is changing faster than I can afford to buy it. I would hate to build (education) around what businesses today think they’re going to need.”

Even so, Indiana is quietly taking steps to position itself for a future where data drives much of what is learned in school.

Gov. Mike Pence has made connecting education and workforce development a centerpiece of his administration’s agenda, and Braun has been a partner from the start. As a state representative he co-authored the bill that in 2013 created the Indiana Career Councils, which seek to coordinate efforts of those involved in education and workforce development in 11 regions around the state.

This year, a bill he wrote created a new state office, under Pence’s direction, with a director who has been nicknamed the state’s “data czar.” That office will manage an expanded network of K-12, higher education and workforce data, working with an outside company to identify trends and opportunities to connect what is learned now to what students will some day need to know.

Just last month, Pence named Braun as the state’s new director of the Department of Workforce Development.

“I’m extremely enthusiastical about the opportunity to bring an entrepreneur like Steve Braun to the task of rethinking workforce education from high school through adult workforce to the state to Indiana,” Pence said. “It’s just a part of our larger vision for really rethinking career and vocational education in the state of Indiana from high school forward.”

In that role, Braun will expand on efforts to involve Indiana companies shaping the state’s education and job training efforts.

“A key dimension completely missing from the equation was anything with any participation from the private employer community,” Braun said. “It’s apparent to me would could get better at that.”

Building business intelligence

First at the business consulting firm Price Waterhouse, and then in his own business, Braun spent his career helping companies better organize data so they could figured out how to best position themselves for future growth. In essence, it’s a process of trying to predict the future.

Private companies, particularly large corporations, today use data to try to guess what they will do tomorrow, such as what products and services to pursue, expand or discontinue and even who to hire. If a company can correctly predict how its market will change, it can help it plan ahead for what sorts of skills its future employees will need. Company leaders can know when it makes sense to retrain their employees or whether they will need to hire new workers.

For example, a large scientific company might be able to use data to predict whether market changes will require it to hire more engineers or more chemists. But even beyond that, the company might know what sorts of chemists it needs based on the work it anticipates they will do. This process works even for a job built on “soft” skills, like sales. Companies have already been able to use data to predict what sorts of interpersonal skills or personality types do best selling their products and test for those when hiring.

But it’s not only private businesses that can use this kind of data prediction — the state can, too, Braun argues.

“This was already being done in the private sector, and to me it’s exactly the same paradigm we need to go through from the standpoint of working with our workforce and education communities,” Braun said. “We know we have unemployed people that are out there. We know that we have a significant number of jobs that are going unfilled because of skills gaps, and starting that process is figuring out what those jobs are skills are.”

A new data network takes shape

To make similarly strong predictions that could help schools know what to teach, the state needs a lot of data.

Indiana’s plan for collecting all that information is called the Indiana Network of Knowledge, an expanded version of a the state’s existing education data collection system.

The idea is to collect long-term data from three state agencies — The Indiana Department of Education, Department of Workforce Development and Commission on Higher Education — and, hopefully, merge it with data tracked by private employers. Four other states — Washington, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maryland — have similar data systems but none have yet harnessed the information in the way Indiana envisions.

Privacy concerns, which were raised when Braun introduced a bill to create the network, should not come into play, he said. The network aims to study trends, not look at individuals. As the network is built over then next year, a new executive director and staff will identify what data will included.

There are three finalists to be the network’s executive director, said Jackie Dowd, a close adviser to Pence who is leading the the effort to build it. All three come from the education world, not business: Jeffrey Hudnall, assistant director of the ISU career center; Karen Jones, dean of the School of Applied Sciences and Engineering at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne; and Jack Powell, director of development at Lutheran High School in Indianapolis.

When it’s operational, state officials hope Indiana can use the network to be a national trailblazer for using data and collaborating with business.

“There is big social and economic value if we do better,” Braun said.

But much still has to be done before the system can become a reality. One important consideration is how people will get access to the data once it is put together and published. Teresa Lubbers, a member of the network’s governance committee representing the Commission on Higher Education, said the action piece should come together once the network has a working staff and begins to move forward.

“That’s critically important,” Lubbers said. “It’s not going to do any good to do a report if it sits on somebody’s shelf.”

Looking ahead, not behind

Indiana, and other states, already collect huge amounts of education data: test scores, graduation rates, demographic information, spending figures and much more.

But there’s a problem, Braun argues, with the way Hoosiers look at, and use, all that information. All of it looks only at what happened in the past.

“These are snapshots or looking back,” he said. “When employers are doing workforce analytics, they are looking at the future market and mapping how they need to grow into it.”

The state can use its new network to do the same thing, he said.

“If we can align education process around that, we can do a  better job of counseling our kids about what jobs available and what area of study will likely result in employment,” Braun said.

Thinking of education that way is sometimes hard for teachers, however. School certainly is supposed to prepare children to be ready for jobs, but that’s not all its about, Meredith said. It’s also about producing good citizens with well-rounded knowledge. Too heavy a focus on career preparation, she said, can lead to teaching kids only specialized skills for jobs they think they want while missing out on other things they need to learn.

“I still believe you have to give kids a core education so hopefully it can help them figure out where they go at the end of high school, whether that’s specific classes in career education and vocational tech, or whether it’s courses to prepare for college or whether it’s military,” Meredith said. “I think we just have to be so careful when we talk about getting kids on specific career paths too soon.”

Companies already are moving in the direction of demanding specific skills and identifying education institutions that can provide students who are prepared with those skills, Braun said.

Take General Electric. The global company in March announced plans to build a $100 million jet engine assembly plan in West Lafayette. A key factor in the company’s decision was the proximity to Purdue University. It’s engineering school, the company said, consistently produces graduates with skills that match it needs. More than 400 Purdue alumni work for GE’s aviation division along with a total of 1,200 Purdue graduates companywide.

“Purdue is building those exact types of engineering skills in aerospace that they really need,” Braun said. “If we aspire to grow certain types of industries we need to start building those skills sets.”

Applying business techniques to government

Having data guide decision-making, said Jerry Conover, executive director of the Indiana Business Research Center, could prove to be a good long-term planning tool for the state.

“The state wants a healthy, vibrant economy where people have skills that are in demand, where they can live comfortably and pay taxes,” Conover said. “Rather than just guessing or being intuitive about what kinds of programs should help make that happen, a longitudinal data system makes it possible to empirically learn which past situations are likeliest to lead to those desired kinds of outcomes.”

But Meredith fears if Indiana’s bets on future jobs turn out to be wrong — after all, the data predictions are nothing more than a best guess — it could lead to even more young Hoosiers leaving the state, taking their talent and earning power elsewhere.

“Let’s face it. Look at businesses that haven’t stayed open, that say they’re coming but then they don’t,” Meredith said. “Training kids for something that isn’t could lead to more brain drain.”

Pence is convinced that Indiana needs a stronger connection between its education system and it’s business community.

The career councils do that by bringing leaders from both sides of that fence together to try to assure that students are prepared for the jobs that are available in the community when they graduate, he said.

“I believe its imperative every one of our kids graduates from school prepared to either go onto college or a productive career,” Pence said. “I think Indiana has a chance to really reestablish the importance of career and vocational education.”

That goal connects with the ideas behind the data network: using what businesses know to figure out what kids need to be learning.

“It is going to put Indiana on the leading edge of workforce innovation in this country,” Pence said. “Using input from business leaders, and using business data gathering and intelligence, we can design these pathways for young people that are looking to go from high school to get a job.”

Should schools be accountable for jobs?

Braun thinks the Indiana’s forecasting can be good enough that training kids to assure they get jobs should be more than a goal. It should be expected.

In the future, he said, that state should consider tying data about how many graduates earn good jobs to its school accountability system.

“You have to talk about identifying what outcomes you want to drive and get everybody involved in the process for driving those outcomes,” he said. “It’s the way any business would be run. We do not hold our higher education or K-12 schools accountable against job placement success. Nothing forces them to develop curriculum and build skills that are relevant to that student getting a job when they graduate from high school or college.”

And yet, there is more to school than preparing for job-related skills, Meredith said. Schools also teach important social, emotional and analytical skills that employers value, too. To make school only about getting a specific job misses the bigger picture of what school can do.

“How can I possibly prepare a high school student for life will be like when they finish college or high school in terms of a career?” Meredith said. “But I feel like I can get them ready for the things that I know will be true. I know they’re going to need to figure things out on their own, read and follow directions and use basic technology. That job that exists in eight years is one that I may not even be able to dream of today, one that might not exist today.”

If schools are eventually held responsible for student job placement, then maybe the state has a responsibility to them to give more support said Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. Under Daniels, Bess said, schools were pushed to bulk up Advanced Placement programs and college prep, and now under Pence, career and workforce are a focus.

“Schools understand they are part of the economic engine for our state,” Bess said. “We’ve got to still understand what skills they need. So we have to continually try to imbue them with the correct skills and opportunities, and when they’re ready to take advantage of it, we’ll be there to assist them.”