Workforce Connection offers one stop help for job seekers

By Lynne Conner for Chronicle Media

Jessica Onken and Melissa DalPra, from Thermo Fisher Scientific assist Stephanie Thano, (center) a student at Rockford University in her job search. (Photo by Lynne Conner / for Chronicle Media)

Finding your first full-time job, navigating the uncertainty of unemployment or acquiring new skills for a career change can be daunting tasks for even the most seasoned employee. 

That’s where the Workforce Connection, an outreach of the Illinois Department of Employment Securities, functions as a one stop shop for local workers in need of employment assistance.  With a focus on training, networking and employee

“Most of our clients have had some sort of barrier to finding employment,” said John Strandin, public information manager at the Workforce Connection office in Rockford.  “So it’s our goal to find out why a client has struggled in their search for employment and then connect them with the appropriate resources that will help them find full time work.”

According to Strandin, the most common impediments to finding full time work are:  not having a high school diploma, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, incarceration and graduating high school with a deficit in basic skills.  “I have heard that around 40,000 people in the Rockford area didn’t finish high school…but that’s a key to getting people employment, the educational level of the community.  That’s where the Workforce Connection fulfills a definite need,” Strandin said.

The ELEVATE program through the Workforce Connection “helps young people between the ages of 16-24 in Winnebago, Boone and Stephenson Counties stay in school or earn their high school equivalency diploma.”  Strandin said that each student in the ELEVATE program has a caseworker who helps ensure that the student is utilizing all the benefits of the program.

“The emphasis in the ELEVATE program is really making sure that students receive GED instruction if they have dropped out of high school or tutoring to help them stay in school.  This program also offers students counseling, mentoring, career exploration, work experience and job placement assistance,” he said.  Students in the ELEVATE program also receive follow-up mentoring for at least a year after finishing the program.

Another aspect to the ELEVATE program, Work Experience, matches young people to jobs they are interested in for a six month period.  “This is for someone who has never had a job before, someone with a limited work history.  This helps them get something on their resume and maybe after the six months is over, the employer will decide to hire them on a full or part-time basis,” Strandin said.

Clients of the Workforce Connection have access to local job fairs like this one held recently at Rockford University. (Photo by Lynne Conner / for Chronicle Media)

For adults who have aged out of the ELEVATE program, the Workforce Connection offers job search and resume assistance; access to job fairs, career readiness workshops; assistance with unemployment claims; job training and other educational opportunities and assistance for disabled workers, veterans and English language learners.  Beyond these concrete job skills, Strandin said that many people of all ages are lacking the “soft skills” that are also crucial to career success. 

“We hear from employers all the time that they’re having trouble finding people with ‘soft skills’.  These are the interpersonal and social skills that some people may not have learned from their upbringing,” Strandin said.  “Employers look for people who are going to show up on time every day, call in if they are sick, have a back-up plan if their car won’t start and know how to get along with other employees.  Employers tell us all the time that if they can get someone who is responsible, can follow directions and is willing to work, we will train them.”

Strandin also said that being on a sports team or involvement in an extra-curricular activity is a huge plus for teen and young adult job seekers.  “This really shows an employer that a young person can commit to something, work with others, show up and be responsible.”

One of Rockford’s biggest seasonal employers of teens and young adults is the Rockford Park District (RPD).  It is estimated that around 600 youth get their first job experience each summer by working for the park district.  According to Laura Gibbs-Green, public relations & internal communications manager for the RPD, there are several job opportunities for teens and young adults. 

“There are a lot of different positions open at Magic Waters Waterpark, lots of life guarding openings at park district pools, guest relations, food and beverage jobs, openings for our camp and playground programs, jobs at the UW Sports Factory and also jobs in park maintenance,” she said.

To be considered for a park district job, applicants must be 16 years of age or older and should fill out an application at  “We also require that interested applicants submit a resume listing some of the experience they have.  This is a chance for youth to think about what they can bring to the table and which skills would be beneficial in a park district job.  Even if this is the first job that a teen applies for, their interests and school activities can help us to find a good fit for them within the RPD.  We work with our youth employees, too, and foster them through the job application process,” Gibbs-Green said.

“The main goal of all our employees is to help the community enjoy the numerous amenities of the park district.  The RPD is a great place to work; it’s a great place to learn a set of job skills and what it means to be a good employee,” she said.  Gibbs-Green said that teen work experience reinforces life skills of integrity, responsibility, trustworthiness and self-confidence.

Sometimes, a teen summer job experience with the RPD sets the stage for long-term future employment.  Gibbs-Green speaks from experience, “I got my first job at the Rockford Park District in the therapeutic recreation department.  I worked seasonally for a few years; ended up loving it so much that I majored in parks and recreation during college.  Now, several years later, I am working full-time for the park district and have been for the last seven years.”

“We have many, many team members who started as seasonal employees and went on to work for the park district full time,” she said.  “For example, Jay Sandine grew up working for the Rockford Park District.  He held seasonal jobs in a variety of park district facilities and is now our executive director.  So, it is very gratifying to see a teen employee come full circle in the park district family.”

A successful teen work experience can oftentimes open the doors to internships, summer jobs during college and possibly full time work upon college graduation.  At a recent job fair held at Rockford University, Stephanie Thanos, a junior majoring in business from Machesney Park was looking for an opportunity to build her resume.

“I am looking for an internship for the summer and into the fall.  I knew that there would be a good variety of companies here and I am looking to make some contacts with these companies to see which one would be a good fit for a possible internship,” she said.  “I found many great companies represented at this job fair; everything from healthcare to business to aerospace.  I will be going through the information I received, doing some follow-up with these companies and hope it leads to an internship.”

Whether you are a teen looking for your first job experience, an adult looking to be retrained for a different career or a young adult in need of further education to succeed in the workplace; there are many resources in the Rockford area which can turn that dream of a perfect job into a reality.


Workforce Connection offers one stop help for job seekers–