Four regions in Illinois are getting help from business leaders and experts in higher education and economic development to help Illinois students and adult learners tailor education to skills that will make them valuable in the workforce.
The Chicago-based Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) is partnering with the Future of the Illinois Workforce Commission to assess educational opportunities in each region and compare them with skills employers are seeking.
Four grants of technical assistance valued at $238,110 were awarded by Indiana-based USAFunds, Inc., to promote a “smoother transition from education to employment in the 21st century global workforce,” according to a press release.
The idea is to work with employers along with regional experts from education and economic development to create education pathways for students that lead to jobs.
Those three partners have to “get together in the same sandbox to move the community forward,” said James Reddish of CAEL.
Although CAEL has focused for more than 40 years on the education of adult students, the organization has experience aligning economic research with educational strategies.
Four regions and economic sectors were chosen: Greater Egypt in southern Illinois and Northeastern Illinois (including Cook, Lake and McHenry counties) will look at the growing job opportunities in healthcare. Rockford and Winnebago County will evaluate job pathways in advanced manufacturing. Madison County will look at career paths in the energy sector.
CAEL researchers will first deliver an industry overview for the area, Reddish said. Then they will work with educational partners to create an “educational asset inventory” of all the programs and training in the area that produces a workforce for that sector, Reddish said.
“It’s helpful to see where the community may have overlapping programs or where they may not have any programs.”
Researchers will provide a “gap analysis” to show what training and education is needed to align with industry needs. “We want to make the right bets for the future on what the jobs will be,” Reddish said.
CAEL will also issue a survey tool, filled out by administrators and adult students to see how adult students are being served by universities and community colleges and compare that data to other survey responses in other parts of the country.
In Northeastern Illinois, in Lake, Cook and McHenry counties and the city of Waukegan, researchers at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and College of Lake County will work with Lake County Partners and the Lake County Workforce Development agency.
The Health Professions Education Consortium has projected that healthcare jobs in the region will grow by 23 percent by 2022, but healthcare services in the region are identified as poor, according to Bruce Neimeyer, vice president for strategic enrollment at North Chicago-based Rosalind Franklin.
“It’s unacceptable that we’ve got this wonderful healthcare university sitting in Lake County and it’s not making a difference in the community,” Neimeyer said.
Local high schools in Waukegan and elsewhere in Lake County are starting to expose students to different healthcare career pathways that can lead to work in the regional hospitals he said.
Neimeyer gave the example of medical informatics, the coding and analysis of electronic medical records, which has jobs unfilled.
A high school student can learn beginning coding in a certificate program.
“Then they can be matched up with an employer in the community while they’re earning their credentials in a Dept. of Labor-approved apprentice program,” he said. Initial diagnosis coding can be expanded through classes at College of Lake County and beyond into sophisticated informatics skills that involve analyzing and comparing patient data.
“We need workforce development partners to work with students along these educational training tacks,” Neimeyer said.
Greater Egypt’s medical focus will be to improve access to healthcare for citizens in Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Perry and Williamson counties. The goal will also be to keep healthcare practitioners in the region with improved support services and a well-trained workforce. The partners in the project are Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale, John A. Logan College, South Illinois Collegiate Common Market, Man-Tra-Con Corp., the Greater Egypt Regional Planning and Development commission and Southern Illinois Healthcare.
The Rockford/Winnebago partners in the study will be Rock Valley College, the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, Not-for profit education resource Alignment Rockford, the Workforce Connection and Transform Rockford.
Advanced manufacturing jobs in Winnebago and Boone Counties are going unfilled while Rockford’s unemployment rates remain high. Manufacturing in Rockford includes transportation equipment, machinery, metal fabrication and chemical products.
Modern advanced manufacturing is computer driven and requires math and science skills. An aging workforce and the region’s difficulty in retaining young workers with college degrees make finding qualified workers difficult, according to a report by the Rockford Area Economic Development Council.
Only about 22 percent of the Winnebago, Boone and McHenry County region’s 335,000-person labor force — including nearly 50,000 employed in manufacturing – are younger than 30, the report said. Of those, only around 21 percent in Boone and Winnebago counties have completed a college degree, and 32 percent in McHenry County compared to 36 percent in the Chicago region.
Alignment Rockford has worked with the local high school districts to develop an academy system that exposes students to real life career experiences alongside academic work. This allows students to think about career pathways earlier and better plan their post-secondary educations. With early input from employers, students can develop training pathways to high-paying advanced manufacturing jobs in the area.
“We look forward to transforming our Rockford area educational system to include a direct link to the manufacturing work needs of our region’s committed employers,” said Bridget French executive director of Alignment Rockford. “We want to support our local citizens, young adults and adults looking for advancement with education right here at home.”
In Madison County, jobs in the clean energy industries are the focus of the plan and partnership. The Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, is partnering with the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center and the Madison County Community Development and Employment agency.
“Madison County is in the second largest urban Illinois area,” said Courtney Breckenridge, specialist at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center in a press release. “A transition to a more sustainable economic base is a priority for the communities located here.”
SIU-Edwardsville offers courses of study in civil, environmental and electrical engineering, as well as environmental policy and technology and sustainable engineering. But other paths to clean energy careers include HVAC, electrician apprenticeships and energy auditing, which can be achieved at community college.
“The timing of this assistance is perfect to examine the future of the energy workforce demands, and the education and training programs needed to fill those jobs,” Breckenridge said.
Post-secondary education institutions are focusing more and more on college completion, said Bob Murray, spokesman for USAFunds.
“It’s really important the students finish what they start, otherwise they don’t reap the whole benefit of their degree, two-year or four-year,” he said. But Murray pointed to statistics showing many recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed and 50 percent in a 2013 McKinsey & Company study admitted they would not take the same course of study or attend the same university if they had to do it again. Employers are dissatisfied too.
“In general, some employers are disappointed in the skill alignment of the graduates they have to hire,” Murray said. “Students are not reaping the full returns on their higher education if they’re working at jobs below their level of training.”
James Applegate, IBHE executive director and chair of the Future of Illinois Workforce commission agreed.
“More and more policymakers and students are asking the question, ‘Completion for what?’ Colleges are being asked to track and improve career outcomes for students in ways that address regional and state workforce needs,” Applegate wrote in an essay on the USAFunds site.
Interacting with businesses and industry during college and designing pathways to careers creates a more successful graduate said Candace Mueller, IBHE associate director.
“Bringing business and industry to work with educational partners helps us see what are the jobs that are wanting here, and how are we going to be educated for them.”
— Grants awarded to build higher education-workforce partnerships —