ByJean B. Morisseau-Kuni
The State of Illinois takes a holistic approach to workforce development through cohesive programs that balance economic development, human services, training programs and technology. A division within the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the state’s lead agency responsible for economic development, ensures that workforce development is an important component of the state’s commitment to economic growth and job creation.
A large, populous state, Illinois has vastly diverse regions within its borders. Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, is located in the north; the middle of the state is home to Springfield, the state capital, and a thriving agricultural economy that continues into the southern region where the Shawnee National Forest and a number of wineries have created an economy dependent on agriculture and tourism. Meeting the needs of those seeking employment and employers in such diverse economies and geographies would be next to impossible if standard training programs were applied across the entire state. However, workforce development in Illinois is as diverse as its geography.
The state government set up 26 Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) that provide small, regional approaches to workforce development. Each WIB is composed of local leaders from business and government sectors, including manufacturing, technology, service and education. Each WIB has the mission of ensuring that programs offered in their region meet current and future local needs.
WIBs carry out their mission through a hand-in-glove relationship with local community colleges. The community colleges provide job training and education programs to meet the ever-changing needs of the community, employers and job seekers. WIBs and community colleges currently are collaborating to increase programs that will meet the growing demand for job skills in “green” technology.
“When someone comes to us looking for employment, we look at the whole person,” said Rick Stubblefield of the Mid America Workforce Investment Board (WIB 24). Mid America serves five Illinois counties in the St. Louis MSA: St. Clair, Monroe, Randolph, Clinton and Washington.
“Daily we work with job seekers who have multiple barriers that keep them from being desirable employees, including lack of a primary school education, homelessness, addictions and mental illnesses. Before we place that person in a training program or with an employer, we have to address the barriers. Our goal is to ensure that when an individual is placed in a job, they are capable, both physically and mentally, to thrive and become an asset to the employer,” Stubblefield said.
Job seekers access workforce services through several portals. Traditional walk-in Career Centers are located in every county where counselors guide clients through the job-search process and help them find training and human service programs. Job seekers who prefer an electronic approach to their search can access WorkNets, an online system that matches skills to job openings, ideas for new career paths and training programs.
Workforce development has been challenging in Illinois as the ranks of unemployed continue to grow in the slowing economy. Many of the newly unemployed have families to support and need to find a new career path quickly. This issue has caused WIBs and community colleges to retool some existing programs and search for new programs that are completed within three to six months while continuing to offer traditional training programs.
Illinois also offers training programs for youths through public high schools. Tutoring, mentoring and soft-skill programs help them hone skills for sustainable employment. WIBs also work with employers to create programs that offer summer jobs and internships to high school and college-aged youth.
WIBs in both the Illinois and Missouri St. Louis MSA are active members of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA). Working with businesses on both sides of the Mississippi River, the RCGA’s core mission is to make the bi-state region a desirable place to live and work and to position the region to grow a strong economy with high employment. Currently, the RCGA is bringing WIBs and community college training administrators from Missouri and Illinois together to discuss the need for a regional workforce development collaborative.
As a region, both states also need to reposition themselves to attract new businesses and expand existing businesses by raising the capacity of the local talent pool. “We need to ensure that talent is part of the equation and not an afterthought,” said Dick Fleming, RCGA president.
He also said St. Louis is positioning itself to become a “green belt” economy by participating in the Rockefeller Brothers Fund pilot “Greenprint” program.