Workforce Development: Point No. 3 on the Jobs Agenda
A key indicator that the economy has improved in Illinois is the elevated call we are hearing from employers for quality workers. In my travels throughout the state over the last several months, I have observed a greater focus on hiring and increased attention on the challenge of finding qualified workers.
Nowhere have those needs been more strongly expressed than in the manufacturing industry. The National Alliance of Manufacturers has taken a leadership position on the issue of workforce readiness, and done the nation a great service by developing certification standards for over 450 manufacturing jobs. NAM’s work is a validation of the credentials and certifications required in today’s work place, and have been recognized as a model for other industry sectors to replicate and for educators to implement.
The good news for Illinois employers is our state has been pursuing an important fundamental change in education standards, career readiness and skill-building since 2009. The fruits of these efforts began to emerge earlier this year, and other states are now looking to Illinois as a pace-setter in the effort to better link educational outcomes with employer needs.
The challenge of guaranteeing employers access to a quality and productive workforce is fundamental to Illinois’ future economic growth and prosperity. This challenge is common to all employers – small or large, public or private, for-profit or non-profit. It is in everyone’s interest to address the employment problem and see these efforts succeed.
I have collaborated with Jeff Mays, President of the Illinois Business Roundtable, to prepare this important message for employers. Jeff is a former state legislator who championed education matters in the General Assembly. He is currently a local school board member in his home town of Quincy. He has consistently represented the state’s business community in all the major education reform initiatives over the last twenty years, both while employed by the Illinois Chamber as an education specialist and as the leader of the Illinois Business Roundtable. Jeff is well known and respected for his experience, knowledge and dedication to the task of improving educational outcomes and career opportunities for Illinois workers.
Significant corporate funding to support the development of the Illinois Pathways Initiative over the last two years has come from Illinois Chamber members AT&T, State Farm and Boeing.
The Illinois Pathways Initiative
We’ve all heard the education narrative: despite more money, more staffing, and a multitude of federal and state reforms, since “A Nation at Risk” – the report produced by President Reagan’s blue ribbon committee on education – was released in 1983, the academic performance of our students has diminished significantly relative to other developed nations. In Illinois, despite reams of data showing the value of education, we’ve seen no academic growth for 10 years, drop-out rates haven’t improved, and only one in five 9th grade students will graduate with a four year college degree.
Now a new narrative is emerging. By 2030, Illinois will have twice as many workers over 65 years of age as workers between ages 16 and 24. In manufacturing alone, an estimated 30,000 new hires are needed each year for the next 15 years simply to replace production workers retiring from Illinois’ factories.
Employers are finding that the skills, knowledge – and yes, work ethic – of employees retiring from the workplace is tough to back-fill. Significant skills gaps have emerged. The “middle-skilled tier,” a group requiring technical training or some post-secondary skills (as opposed to a college degree), is projected to grow at 12.8 percent. Meanwhile the “skilled tier” will grow at 7.8 percent and the unskilled tier – those with a high school diploma or less – will shrink. These skills gaps are demonstrated most vividly in Illinois’ April unemployment numbers: even as roughly 570,000 Illinoisans were unemployed, nearly 180,000 vacant jobs were posted online.
While the challenge is great, an innovative new perspective on education and the workforce promises to shed new light on the issue. A groundbreaking report issued last year by the Harvard Graduate School of Education entitled “Pathways to Prosperity” contends that our national strategy for education and youth development has been too narrowly focused on an academic, classroom-based approach. This strategy has produced only incremental gains, while many other nations have leapfrogged past the United States. In response, the report advocates development of a comprehensive career pathways network linking work and learning to serve youth in high school and beyond.
Private Sector Engagement in Workforce Development
Two years prior to release of Harvard’s report, a broad coalition of business and education policy leaders from Illinois was convened to help drive the effort. It is not by chance that Illinois has emerged as a national leader in this movement, and the state’s leadership role was cemented last February with the formal launch of the Illinois Pathways Initiative.
At its core, the Illinois Pathways Initiative builds on existing school – business partnerships at the local level and leverages them to align state education, employment training, and private foundation resources. It is an innovative and comprehensive systems approach focused on the student and with the goal of improving Illinois’ education and workforce development pipelines.
Key Goals of the Illinois Pathways Initiative
The Illinois Pathways Initiative is designed to:
1) Link classroom learning to real world applications through improved curriculum, guidance counseling, mentoring, and work-based learning opportunities;
2) Align and leverage the significant existing education investments-public and private—and measure their effectiveness from both education and workforce perspectives; and
3) Reverse the emerging skills gaps in critical economic sectors and fix the education and workforce pipelines to better meet the needs of students and employers.
How the Illinois Pathways Initiative Works
The Illinois Pathways Initiative is built on four key platforms:
1) Local programs of study;
2) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Learning Exchanges;
3) Better alignment of state education, economic development, and training agencies; and
4) Establishment of the Illinois Shared Learning Environment.
Below is a brief description of each platform.
PROGRAMS OF STUDY: Programs of Study are community-based sequences of high school, post-secondary courses and applied learning experiences organized around STEM career clusters. Students will pursue both academic and career interests, starting from an orientation experience and continuing through advanced pathway courses which provide opportunities to connect to professional networks through mentors, work-based learning experiences, real world problem solving and academic challenges.
In addition to earning a diploma at the end of high school, students will have the opportunity to earn nationally portable, industry-validated certifications and “stackable” credentials that build upon one another. A hallmark of the program of study is the transparent and seamless transition of students to higher education or a career. Just as Illinois’ Community Colleges and Universities have worked closely with Illinois high schools to allow students to earn college credits while in high school, this initiative envisions similar alignment with work readiness certifications and credentials earned in high school as a basis for further credentials in apprenticeship or college coursework.
STEM LEARNING EXCHANGES: Illinois is creating nine STEM learning exchanges that are aligned to the national career cluster framework and are of particular importance to Illinois’ economy. Learning exchanges will be launched this summer in Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Architecture and Construction; Energy; Manufacturing; Information Technology; Transportation, Distribution & Logistics; Research & Development; Health Sciences; and Finance.
STEM Learning Exchanges are voluntary public-private partnerships organized to advance college and career readiness and to support local implementation of STEM Programs of Study from grade school through college (P-20). The Exchanges will coordinate statewide networks of P-20 business and education partners, identifying within each cluster all of the resources currently invested, and then aggregating and leveraging these resources statewide to enhance local programs of study. All post-secondary institutions—public, private, or proprietary—bring significant resources to these learning exchanges.
INTERAGENCY ALIGNMENT: All six state education and training boards/agencies – the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Community College Board, Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Student Assistance Commission, Department of Economic Opportunity and the Department of Employment Security – have adopted an inter-agency agreement to work collaboratively to improve the P-20 talent pipelines in support of the Illinois Pathways Initiative. In addition to aligning programs and resources, all agency partners have launched cluster working groups to develop and compile the necessary information to launch each Learning Exchange. This information includes career profiles, projected labor needs, P-20 career pathway models, and baseline information on program completers in each pathway.
ILLINOIS SHARED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: The Illinois Pathways Initiative will be supported by a cloud-based technology infrastructure to support communication and collaboration tools among the exchanges and programs of study, as well as key features important to both education and workforce development. Since 2009, tens of millions of dollars have been committed to the development of this new technology platform.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO EMPLOYERS?
If the employer considers education philanthropy a purposeful investment rather than merely a gift, there is abundant value that will accrue through participation in this initiative at either the local or state level. First, the employer will reduce the transaction cost of education investment. Through the shared learning technology platform and a common framework, program development costs can be spread among multiple school districts across Illinois. Second, the exchange provides multiple opportunities for businesses of all sizes to contribute based on their interests and needs, particularly as they relate to the talent pipeline.
With the skills gaps existing today, there is real value to having more career ready applicants with industry validated credentials or experience. Further, the exchange enables companies to collaborate and coordinate more effectively with each other to leverage their charitable contributions for the results they seek. The collective focus of private philanthropy will broaden competition for funding, resulting in a more effective, responsive and sustainable education program.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO STUDENTS?
This is truly a student-centered initiative. It builds on the students’ academic knowledge and connects students to multiple pathways based on their skills and areas of interest. In very real terms, the student’s learning is expanded far beyond the classroom to real world applications that include internships, mentors, and applied academic challenges. A key finding of the Harvard report is that we are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood. College is not for all students and does not ensure career success. This initiative expands student learning options through multiple career pathways and engages the student in his learning experience.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO SCHOOLS?
This initiative is designed to enhance engagement in our schools, by both the student and community, with a system of support provided through the learning exchanges and the shared learning environment. It will require more interdisciplinary engagement of teachers to link the academic to the applied, broader counseling for students to make them aware of the multiple pathways that exist for them, and better alignment particularly between high school, employers, and college/career training providers.
WHAT CAN YOUR COMPANY DO TO INFLUENCE PROGRAM RESULTS AND GAIN ACCESS TO QUALIFIED WORKERS?
To learn more about this initiative and how you can participate, there are two key points of contact.
The first point of contact is your local school superintendent. Your superintendent can inform you about the current programs that are provided, how they are linked to other education offerings in your community, and what steps the district is planning to take to participate in the Illinois Pathways Initiative. You can inform your local school superintendents about the human resource needs you have in your company, as well as the support your company and employees may be willing to provide students in the form of mentors, internships, career awareness, teacher externships, job shadowing, scholarships and so forth..
Initially, the second point of contact is Jeff Mays of the Illinois Business Roundtable (IBRT). The IBRT has been involved since the inception of the Pathways Initiative. Jeff can link you to key contacts in your industry cluster. His phone number is 312-228-0731 or you can contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later this summer, each learning exchange will have a not-for-profit association or university charged with administration of the exchange. To find initial information about each exchange, you can visit the Illinois Pathways Initiative page on the Illinois Worknet website.