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Illinois’ Secret To A Steady Flow of Talent: Education

Discover how Illinois colleges and universities work with industry to train future generations of highly skilled workers for the jobs of tomorrow.

By Teree Caruthers on July 11, 2016

Illinois Workforce
Mic Smith

Corporate relocation specialists agree that one of the most important assets for attracting investment is a highly skilled and available workforce. Illinois’ diverse portfolio of community and technical colleges, research universities and private institutions ensure a continual flow of talent to current and emerging industries.

The state can draw on a talent pool that includes more than 825,000 graduates from colleges in the Midwest each year, including 500,000 from schools in the Big 10. The University of Illinois ranks in the top five for computer science and engineering. The state also includes two top Top 25 engineering school in the University of Illinois and Northwestern. According to the 2015 Cyberstates report, there were nearly 228,000 technology jobs in Illinois in 2014, up from 212,000 just five years earlier, and eighth-highest among states. Nearly one-half of the state’s 5.6 million workers are professionals, skilled technicians, craftspeople or machine operators.

“We’re very fortunate in Illinois in that we have a great education structure. We have some of the best universities in the country located right here, and that is a big draw to a lot of companies, especially companies that are into high tech or biotech industries or engineering or even renewable energies,” says Julio Rodriguez, director of the Office of Employment and Training, Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity. “I think they really see Illinois’ workforce based on our infrastructure in terms of our educational institutions as being something that’s very important and something that’s critical to their needs.”

Skills Assessments

The Department of Commerce also plays a pivotal role in workforce development, employing 22 local workforce areas that work with local employers to help them recruit, train and retain top talent.

“We provide training for people who may not have the exact skills that employers need at the moment, but with these training programs, they can get the training they need to go to work for those companies,” Rodriguez says. “The state also provides training for companies whose workers may need to have their skills upgraded in order for them to continue to work in a particular company, or to help keep that company stay competitive in a particular market or industry that they’re in.”

Tom Peters, director of workforce development for Symbol Training Institute in Skokie, says this collaboration between the state, business and industry, and the education community is the key to workforce development success.

“Over the years, the state has developed key partnerships with business, community-based organizations and for-profit training providers to remain knowledgeable about changes in each industry as well as the needs of each sector.  Although competition among the organizations exist, they are also willing to share information and resources, both of which becomes a win-win for all involved,” Peters says.

Smart Starts

Among the many collaborations taking place in the state are business-education partnership within secondary schools.

“One of the things that we are doing more of is developing programs in the high schools – internships and apprenticeship programs that help young people discover the opportunities available in some of these industries,” Rodriguez says.

Harper Community College in Palatine has been working closely with manufacturers in the northwest part of Cook County to establish apprenticeships programs for young people. Rodriguez says many of the graduates of those apprenticeship programs go on to get jobs with those manufacturers, and in some instances, go on to get higher credentials in engineering or in the higher-level math areas.

For its part, Symbol Training maintains close ties to the state’s manufacturing community, training and upgrading the skills of existing workforce while continually receiving feedback from industry. Symbol staff members regularly meet with key personnel at manufacturing companies to keep current on the changing needs and trends as well as the companies’ needs for new employees and skills-building for existing workers.

“Symbol’s philosophy of collaboration, which incorporates the linkage between industry and education, has produced exceptional placement results whereby over 90 percent of Symbol’s graduates obtain and retain employment,” Peters says.

Community colleges across the state also provide customized training. At Highland Community College in Freeport, the Business Institute makes on-site visits to companies in the community on a needs assessment to determine the type and level of training that suits them.

“Or we can bring them to campus and have their employees take our standard courses or a customized course on site schedule, ” says Scott Anderson, dean of business and technology at Highland Community College. “We’ve used a term around here. We’ve coined it ‘growing our own.’ That means let’s find some good employees that want to move from just working on the line, to a more technical, better paying, more secure position.”

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