The Best Incentive Is a Great Workforce

Our economic future depends on workforce development efforts.
by Chris Setti, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council
UnityPoint Health interns
UnityPoint Health's internship program creates opportunities to expose students to careers in the healthcare field.

In January 2018, Toyota and Mazda announced they would be building a joint factory in Huntsville, Alabama. This ended a furious scramble of communities across the U.S. looking to pitch their sites to these automotive giants. Pundits were surprised when Alabama got the nod over North Carolina, the other finalist. North Carolina had offered nearly $1.5 billion worth of incentives—three times higher than Alabama’s offer. It seemed like an offer that couldn’t be beat.

But some issues are more important than incentives. According to industry experts at Baum & Associates, Toyota-Mazda was swayed in large part by logistics and workforce issues. Alabama was already home to three other auto plants and consequently a sophisticated supply chain. Good logistics save money. In addition, according to Alan Baum, “Huntsville has a reputation for a technical workforce historically and in the present.” CareerSpark

This was no accident. With all the automotive manufacturing jobs in the state, Alabama began crafting its workforce efforts to match employer demand.

What does a story about a car plant in Alabama mean to us? It shows the importance of focusing on our greatest asset: our people. At GPEDC, we constantly hear about workforce. Each year, we meet with over 100 intrastate businesses based in the region. They routinely report to us that the largest barrier to growth is finding enough qualified people to fill jobs. When we are marketing the area to prospective companies, the first question they ask is about the quality and availability of our workforce. Even startup companies will tell you that right after access to capital, access to employees is their biggest challenge.

Traditionally, a qualified workforce was equated with how many bachelor degrees there were in a community. Four-year degrees are important, but we are seeing an increased need for certifications and other options that give people the necessary skills to meet today’s demands. And we have some great examples of this work locally. 

Building the Talent Pipeline
Last fall, Illinois Central College launched an apprenticeship program in industrial maintenance that combines in-class instruction with on-the-job training. The tuition is covered by employers, and enrollees finish the 2½-year program with an associate’s degree, the proper industry certification and a guaranteed job. They are launching similar programs in secure software development and machining. 

Recently, Midstate College partnered with Peoria Public Schools to co-enroll eight juniors from Manual High School in their medical coding and billing program. Students spend half the day at Manual and half the day at Midstate. At the end of their senior year, they will have a diploma and a set of marketable skills.

Local companies recognize the importance of a well-trained workforce and are taking steps to help themselves and the region. Caterpillar launched its “E4Life” program, which creates hands-on, paid internships for high school students interested in manufacturing careers. E4Life has seen early success, with many interns converting to regular full-time employees after graduation. GPEDC helped Caterpillar scale this program beyond its pilot. Companies like Caterpillar are the reason we have helped place nearly 250 high school students in internships through our GP Pathways program.

Similarly, recognizing a shortage in welders, Morton Industries developed its own resource to train employees. Their in-house weld training facility will train current employees interested in welding to help them transition to opportunities within the company. Fifteen employees are currently enrolled in the course. Once completed, they will receive a welding certification and be transferred to higher-paying jobs. Efforts by local companies help to augment the work done by great organizations such as Goodwill Industries that give people the critical skills they need to fill valuable jobs in the community.

Easterseals Interns
Easterseals Central Illinois stepped up to create internships for students interested in human services and child development.

Exploring Career Interests
Building the talent pipeline starts even earlier in our region. Each year in partnership with Junior Achievement, GPEDC hosts CareerSpark for every eighth-grade student in Greater Peoria. This is the critical stage in a child’s life when career interests are starting to take shape. 

CareerSpark is a hands-on career exploration event designed to showcase dozens of careers available in this region across eight different industries. In 2018, hundreds of volunteers helped over 4,200 students from 62 different schools get a jumpstart on their future. The results were impressive. 

We were able to measure a distinct shift in attitudes regarding the aptitude to have these careers—with the biggest shift among students who attend low-moderate income schools. This year’s CareerSpark (October 8-9) hopes to serve 5,000 students. You can learn more at gppathways.org. 

As a region, we need to keep working to build our system of workforce development. Our present—and our future—depend on it. PM

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