The creation of a high-performing workforce development system must become the region’s No. 1 competitive advantage.
In any discussion of regional economic development, the initial focus is inevitably on the brick-and-mortar infrastructure. Are the roads sufficient? Is there adequate housing? Is there space for commercial expansion? But economic development can only be sustained if there is a well-trained regional workforce. In fact, a seventh-century Chinese proverb teaches: “When planning for a year, plant corn. When planning for a decade, plant trees. When planning for life, train and educate people.”
For the past few decades, the approach to economic development in this region was fragmented, with city pitted against city in a fight to attract new businesses. The primary attention was on the brick-and-mortar development of industrial parks and TIF districts, while workforce development remained on the periphery. Each community touted its workforce as “the best” in the country. This message was drowned out by the other thousands of communities across the United States singing the same “we’re the best” anthem. Businesses looking for new homes were not swayed.
FFCI Enters the Arena
FFCI recognized that greater focus had to be placed on developing the quality and quantity of skilled workers needed to grow the region’s economy—and not one community over another. Since the workforce lives throughout the five-county region of Woodford, Tazewell, Peoria, Mason and Logan counties, the creation of a high-performing workforce development system had to become the region’s No. 1 competitive advantage. Research indicates the quantity and quality of the workforce is the chief requirement for improved business competitiveness. Companies are attracted to regions with robust workforce markets that adequately supply 25-to-44 year-old skilled employees.
A high-performing workforce development system requires the year-round collaboration of people, education and training providers and companies. The system must be able to define the quantity and quality of the workforce supply, and most importantly, how the workforce development system can respond to industry needs and changes. In other words, how is our region different from all of the others who claim to have “the best” workforce?
FFCI created the Workforce Development Action Team to study the issue and make recommendations for how to begin to build a new model for workforce development. The team, led by Doug Parsons of Excel Foundry, identified a need for an alliance of resources to gather workforce demand and forecast information from businesses to be shared with educational institutions which would scale technical training to address any reported needs. What grew from these discussions was the creation of FFCI’s Workforce Alliance. FFCI created the Workforce Alliance to:
- Build a collaborative regional workforce ecosystem that is not boundary-restricted
- Create a 360° regional talent pipeline development system that doubles throughput by 2018
- Develop a regional talent data warehouse
- Create a multi-sector career readiness toolkit
- Develop and maintain career pathways/learning exchanges with industry-recognized credentials for all jobs
- Launch a transformational messaging initiative to change perceptions of work
- Collaborate with the GeNEXT initiative to retain and attract 21,000+ 25-to-44 year-old employees.
Illinois Central College, under the leadership of President John Erwin and Agricultural and Industrial Technologies Dean Michael Sloan, made a significant commitment in June 2013 to serve as the organizing entity for the Workforce Alliance. Scott Aberle, CEO of Premier Fabrication in Woodford County, chairs the Workforce Alliance.
“I’ve seen an unusual level of private- and public-sector sustained engagement in driving the efforts of the Workforce Alliance,” said Dean Sloan. “This is different than in past initiatives.” There are now more than 40 regional workforce leaders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors directing separate work teams responsible for implementing the strategies and action plans.
“The Workforce Alliance is about identifying credentials that businesses will recognize and provide individuals not only with a better idea of what is needed at entry-level positions, but pathways to advance their careers within their business or community,” Sloan explained. “The efforts of the Workforce Alliance have only begun, yet it has demonstrated it can produce strong results. It is exciting to think of a future when a greater proportion of central Illinois businesses are participating, actively contributing innovative ideas, and sharing in the outcomes of a highly skilled and personally aware workforce.” Sloan is hopeful that human resource directors, high school teachers, college professors, school administrators and others will embrace the suggestions made by the Workforce Alliance. “I hope that leaders listen long enough to understand that the solutions have the strength of a community of workforce partners behind them.”
While ICC serves as the backbone organization for Workforce Alliance, several individuals representing a cross-section of businesses, schools, workforce agencies and community-based organizations contribute to the group’s priorities and work plans.
FFCI Chair Diana Hall is excited about the progress the organization has made in such a short time. “FFCI is so proud of the results being produced by the Workforce Alliance,” she said. “We’ve been able to help secure over $1 million in grants to assist in that important work.”
Specifically, the Workforce Alliance leaders participated in securing three grants:
- $991,000 Regional Illinois Manufacturing Career Pathways Initiative Grant led by Career Link and Workforce Network, which will provide training for up to 100 individuals for careers in manu- facturing.
- $300,000 Illinois Higher Education Grant was assigned to ICC to help build greater collaboration between FFCI and the college’s Emerging Leaders Program. This grant addresses minority student retention, graduation rates and connecting students with available jobs in the region.
- $200,000 EDA and Match Funds for Manufacturing Communities Partnership Grant to diversify central Illinois manufacturers’ supply chain.
Each of these grants was brought to FFCI or members of the Workforce Alliance because of the broad regional partnership between providers of workforce development services and the entities across the region engaged in economic development. “Without these broad partnerships and the S.M.A.R.T. goal strategic plan developed under the auspices of FFCI, most of these grants would have been far more difficult to attract to the region,” noted Hall. “They also multiply the impact of private, public and nonprofit sector investments in FFCI.”
In addition to these grants, workforce centers of excellence or learning exchanges for the manufacturing sector are being funded in collaboration with the regional STEM Learning Exchange led by the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association Educational Foundation.
“This is the closest we have come to bringing all entities together who are responsible for training the workforce in central Illinois,” noted Workforce Alliance member Lori Laredo, director of operations at East Peoria High School. “The biggest advantage I have witnessed, is not only hearing about what each of the entities do to educate, but also hearing what companies are having to do internally to train their employees to stay competitive. We will be able to take all this information and design a training pipeline that will benefit the students and companies in central Illinois.” iBi
FFCI’s Workforce Alliance meets the second and fourth Thursday of each month in the Agricultural & Industrial Technologies Building at Illinois Central College. The meetings are open to all who are interested, and new participants are welcomed.