Leading the Future

It’s a Community Commitment
by Jeff Griffin
Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce

We must create a new model to develop our next-generation workforce.

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." So said President John Quincy Adams… or Dolly Parton, depending on your research. But whoever said it, I really like it—and the fact that it’s attributed to leaders who would never be paired together proves just how divergent leadership styles can be.

All of us have been students of leadership since birth; I know my parents would have had it no other way. The writing of this leadership-focused message is timely, because I wrote it while attending the Jobs for the Future conference at Harvard University. Our mission was to bring great resources back to Peoria, while sharpening our leadership skills to do so.

As an executive in nonprofit leadership for more than 15 years, I have been forced to embrace all the latest leadership trends and seminars. I have gone from Good to Great, through Who Moved My Cheese? and learned the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, only to be profoundly annoyed that Covey kept an eighth habit in his back pocket in order to sell more books. Though some might argue, I do not think I am officially “great” yet, and it's not for lack of attending leadership training sessions. My point is not to slam “traditional” leadership training, but rather, to open your thinking that successful leadership takes many forms outside of the latest book tour.

I was honored to join the leadership group representing Illinois—and more specifically, Peoria—as we advocate for change in our traditional education system. Along with ten other states, Illinois is part of the Pathways to Prosperity initiative, launched from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011 based on the argument that our nation’s current education system is too narrowly focused on preparing all high school students for a traditional four-year college degree.

Consider for a moment that just one in three students obtains a four-year degree by age 25, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet we continue to drive our young people to define success as having to earn a four-year college degree for a job that may or may not exist—and at a pay rate that may or may not allow them to pay off the debt they incurred. Meanwhile, we are missing an opportunity to engage young people on career “pathways,” which begin before high school graduation and continue with community college or technical training, where the student can earn valuable workplace certifications.

Please be clear: we are changing the norms and comfort zones all of us bring to the table. We are doing it, however, with all the right partners involved. Your local leaders who have committed to make this project successful include: Peoria Public Schools, Peoria Federation of Teachers Local 780, City of Peoria, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, CEO Council, Illinois Central College, Focus Forward CI, Pathways to Prosperity Network and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. This is beyond a public school issue—it’s a community issue, and the team we built represents that commitment.

Our Illinois group was comprised of school superintendents, business executives, nonprofit leaders, community college experts, government support and academic research teams. These people do not always speak the same language, nor move at the same pace, for a variety of reasons. The fact is that Illinois and nine other states from coast to coast know we must create a new model to develop our next-generation workforce.

As president of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, I can tell you this project is a major priority to our board of directors and membership. In every way, we are connected with this: quality of life, workforce development, business retention, young professionals, legislative advocacy and beyond. I am confident this process will produce results and extremely optimistic that our partners will accomplish it as a community… together! iBi

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