Developing and Refining Peoria’s Untapped Workforce

by Jamila Wilson
PeoriaCorps

PeoriaCorps is making an important investment in local, homegrown talent.

Peoria sits on a proverbial gold mine. According to National Resource Network data, Peoria consists of a young population—Generations X, Y (Millennials) and Z make up 75 percent of the population under the age of 55, with one third under the age of 35. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the median age in Peoria is 34. The oldest millennial, born in 1980, is 38 years old. With this emerging and abundant population, Peoria is incubating an untapped workforce. As investments are made in recruiting talent to the city, a grand opportunity exists to cultivate and invest in local, homegrown talent. This is the call to action for Peoria’s leaders: understanding and implementing the inputs and variables to mold and refine this human capital toward innovative industries, sustainable manufacturing, and growth in the green economy.

Collaboration in Workforce Development
Recent initiatives in Peoria’s business, healthcare and education communities further support the need to prepare this emerging labor force through soft skills development and emotional learning. Acknowledging the challenge facing employers to identify a local workforce competent in soft skills, Caterpillar sponsored a Soft Skills Symposium in March 2017 at Bradley University. In addition, Peoria Public Schools, in partnership with OSF HealthCare, was recently awarded $1.1 million to establish a trauma center designed to provide youth affected by violent environments with targeted support to build competencies in self-awareness, responsible decision making, self-management, social awareness and relationship skills.

Efforts to address this challenge began as early as 2014 when the City of Peoria was awarded a Bloomberg Innovation Grant, which created an in-house consulting group known as the Innovation Team (i-team). The i-team seeks to integrate empirical evidence with anecdotal experiences by engaging local thought leaders and partners and researching nationally recognized best practices to address systemic challenges within Peoria and the Tri-County Area.

In 2015, the i-team, in partnership with the City of Peoria Public Works Department, visited Philadelphia’s PowerCorps PHL to observe how youth leadership engagement, workforce development and green infrastructure maintenance could be adapted in Peoria to tackle the multiple challenges with one solution—feeding multiple birds with one seed. Subsequently, an advisory committee was created, including members of labor, trade unions, government, area colleges and business leaders. As a result of this collaboration—and with funding acquired through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Corporation of National Community Service and the City of Peoria—PeoriaCorps was established in the fall of 2017.

PeoriaCorps is an AmeriCorps workforce development program that provides young people ages 18 to 24 with a six-month pre-apprenticeship and work experience designed to enhance soft skills and build self-efficacy and leadership skills. PeoriaCorps develops, trains and supports young talent to address the soft skills deficit among the youth population, as well as providing a credentialed and skilled workforce for job opportunities in the “green” industry sector.

These young people—identified as “opportunity youth”—have been disconnected from work or school for significant periods of time. They navigate significant barriers to employment, whether being a parenting teen, school dropout or juvenile offender. PeoriaCorps focuses on transforming this population into a qualified and confident pool of applicants for the regional workforce.

Building Homegrown Leaders
PeoriaCorps’ inaugural cohort in 2017 included ten young people, primarily representing zip codes 61603 and 61614, who committed to the six-month experience. The program serves as an incubation space, providing weekly one-on-one case management for this targeted demographic as they overcome barriers to improve their future career opportunities.

During their time with PeoriaCorps, the 2017 cohort was exposed to various career pathways related to green infrastructure, including construction, manufacturing and labor. Corps members had the opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials through the National Green Infrastructure Certification Program (NGICP) by spending 80+ hours in hands-on work experience and classroom instruction in constructing, maintaining and inspecting green infrastructure.

In addition, the cohort was instructed in an environmental literacy and job readiness curriculum called Roots of Success, created by Dr. Raquel Pinderhughes, Professor of Urban Studies & Planning at San Francisco State University and an expert on green workforce training. The nationally-recognized curriculum is designed to improve the emerging workforce’s awareness of climate and social issues that impact development and innovation in the changing global economy, while providing the job readiness skills needed for 21st-century labor demands.

PeoriaCorps leaders saw a striking boost in confidence with this inaugural cohort. According to an exit survey, 100 percent of Corps members believed they had significantly improved their soft skills competencies, with an emphasis on teamwork, communication and creativity/innovation. They expressed appreciation for being able to practice and develop leadership skills they were unaware they possessed.

In addition, they showed significant gains in technical and academic skills. Participants are required to complete the Test for Adult Basic Education (TABE) both before and at the end of the program. On average, PeoriaCorps participants improved their test scores by two grade levels, while one participant even saw a math skills gain of four grade levels.

This cohort’s desire to build and enhance their professional competencies, despite their challenges, is evident in the results of the program. Seven of the ten participants graduated and were successfully retained. Seventy percent were able to secure employment in their field of choice, 60 percent were enrolled in a post-secondary institution, and one individual enlisted in the military.

The Future Is Now
As the saying goes: The future is now! PeoriaCorps’ potential to deliver sustainable impact in the development of its homegrown talent is significant. Providing specialized 21st-century skills development, tailored wraparound support services and improved self-confidence to this emerging workforce can produce a groundswell of not only qualified labor, but this region’s next generation of leaders.

As PeoriaCorps brings on board its second cohort of ten young people for the 2018 summer program, the emphasis on growing and cultivating leadership experiences has sharpened. The PeoriaCorps management team will seek to grow its leadership development series to include professional mentors for Corps members. The goal is to utilize industry-recognized self-efficacy tools and resources to identify individual strengths and assets and to expand opportunities for public/private investment in the sustainability of this program—because we all benefit. iBi

Jamila Wilson is program director of PeoriaCorps. There is an immediate opportunity for the business community to support PeoriaCorps this summer through corporate sponsorships. For more information, visit peoriagov.org/PeoriaCorps, or call (309) 369-6226 to join the effort.

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