SPRINGFIELD – State education officials and youth employment advocates are proposing expanding job skills programs in areas with large minority student populations and high unemployment, while also removing barriers to employment that disproportionately affect minorities.
The proposals were offered during the final joint meeting of the Senate Education and Higher Education committees on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 5.
The joint education committees have met eight times since mid-September to discuss improvements to education and workforce development, which is one of four pillars that comprise the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus’ agenda.
The other three pillars are criminal justice reform, violence reduction and police accountability, economic access, equity and opportunity and health care and human services.
One area of focus during the committee’s discussion was career and technical education, or CTE, programs in state high schools that are designed to prepare students for technical skills jobs.
In 2019, 773 of the 823 total Illinois public high schools offered CTE programs, as well as 14 regional programs and 24 area career centers, according to Jennifer Kirmes, executive director for teaching and learning at the Illinois State Board of Education.
“CTE programs prepare students for post-secondary education, and for careers in high-wage, high-skill and in-demand occupations,” Kirmes said during the committee meeting.
However, income disparities exist between Black graduates and their white counterparts, after entering the workforce with a skills-based job, said Brian Durham, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board.
Three years after graduation, the ICCB’s data show that graduates earn roughly $6,000 less than their white counterparts, according to Durham.
The data for 2019 indicates that the number of white students enrolled in CTE programs was more than five times the number of Black students, and the number of white students graduating from those programs was more than five times the number of Black graduates.
Durham said one way the ICCB is trying to reduce these racial disparities is by implementing the state’s Perkins State Plan for CTE, which is necessitated by a 2018 federal law.
That federal law is known as Perkins V, which was signed by President Donald Trump in 2018. It requires states to submit a four-year plan for implementing CTE programs and seeking to address educational inequity in those programs among marginalized, minority and low-income populations.
“Colleges have to demonstrate that they are working to make changes to decrease the achievement gap and meet some challenges in educational equity across these key areas,” he said. “It requires evidence based strategies, and then we are also conducting a racial campus climate study across the system as well, so that we can provide campus-level and statewide information to that to the campuses to help them in their assessment.”
Lawmakers also discussed the high rate of unemployment among youth and young minorities at the Nov. 5 committee.
In Illinois, for example, the unemployment rate in 2019 was 12.5 percent for white residents ages 16 to 19, while it was 28.2 percent for Black residents in that age group.
Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, said a young person who is unemployed but returns to school and graduates will save Illinois taxpayers $300,000 over that person’s lifetime.
“They are going to be less in need of the health, welfare and prison systems, and they’re going to make more money and pay more taxes,” Wuest said. “What we need is a broader employment program, with the state, the city and federal government, particularly, providing those kinds of jobs linked to education.”
Wuest said the federal government should bring back a Civilian Conservation Corps — which was a nine-year program established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration during the Great Depression.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has proposed a $55 billion federal workforce program, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps, that would provide training to anyone 16 years or older for at least two weeks for positions lasting a minimum of 12 weeks, but no longer than one year.
“We’ve got a great congressional group in the city and the state to advocate for this kind of level of money that sounds crazy but it isn’t if it provides these young people a chance to move forward, and also provide stability and lack of disturbances and riots that will occur if these young people have no other opportunity and no other outlet,” Wuest said.
Mari Castaldi, director of policy and advocacy at the Chicago Jobs Council, emphasized the importance of closing the skills gap, as well as removing institutional barriers that typically impact low-income and minority communities, in order to decrease unemployment for marginalized groups.
While 52 percent of jobs in Illinois are middle skills — meaning jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree — only 41 percent of workers meet that educational attainment level, Castaldi said.
“However, closing our skills gap only gets us part of the way to better job prospects for working people,” she said. “The second task, which has been mentioned throughout this hearing, is to close the opportunity gap created by systemic barriers related to race, age and gender, which include workplace discrimination, occupational segregation, community disinvestment, and lack of access to transportation, childcare, and stable housing. And for many hard working people, of course, this opportunity gap is an even bigger hurdle. So, the best workforce development policies have to consider not only how to impart those skills, but also address systemic barriers faced by workers and job seekers.”
Castaldi said her organization recommends investing greater state funding in career programming as a way to address some of the systemic barriers and enhance racial equity in employment.
“We know that outside of the community college system, the vast majority of public funding for job training programs and workforce development in Illinois comes from federal sources,” she said. “By our initial estimate, over 90 percent of workforce funding in Illinois comes from these dwindling federal sources, which have actually decreased by 30 percent in real terms over the past two decades.”
Castaldi suggested lawmakers invest state funding in projects such as a Barrier Reduction Fund, to help job seekers and career training program participants address barriers to employment.
She also urged that they implement policy changes at the state level to remove unnecessary barriers that disproportionately impact young people, minorities and women.
For example, she said, Illinois still suspends driver’s licenses of people who can’t afford to pay ticket debt from automated camera tickets and low-level traffic tickets.
Current estimates indicate that as many as 500,000 Illinoisans had suspended licenses for failure to pay, she said, despite the implementation of the Illinois License to Work Act this year, which no longer allows for non-moving violations to result in a suspended Illinois driver’s license.
“Given the virtual necessity of a driver’s license for many good paying jobs, including these trades jobs, ending economic license suspension would open up opportunities for many thousands of people,” she said.
During the hearing, Senate and House lawmakers also heard testimony from representatives from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Teach for America, Relay Graduate School of Education, YouthBuild Illinois, and Empower Illinois/Untapped Potential Project.
In a news release, Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, said the committee learned that there are challenges at every level of the education system that need to be addressed.
“We have a long way to go before we can say that our state’s education system is built to empower every child’s growth,” Lightford said. “I’m committed to working with my colleagues to reach that goal.”