Guest Column: Not a part of the budget debate, still a priority

When Gov. Rod Blagojevich first came to office, he said, “It is a strong and skilled workforce that is the heartbeat of American industry. . . . And it will only be through continuing to invest the right way in our working people that Illinois will ensure its success in the new economy.”

Continued investment? Effective state programs and pilots that advance job seeker skills and award credentials for high-demand jobs in the local economy lost or gained no new dollars in the Governor’s FY 08 budget. For example, the general revenue-funded Job Training and Economic Development (JTED) program, supporting business and community partnerships to prepare local job seekers and low-wage workers for high-demand occupations, was flat-funded at just $1.4 million. The governor’s own Critical Skills Shortage Initiative, a regional approach to workforce and economic development solutions, is reliant on ever-shrinking federal dollars (in inflation-adjusted terms, Illinois lost $21.7 million in Workforce Investment Act and adult education funds since 2001), cuts funding in half for second-year efforts, and offers no funding to third-year projects.

If the governor is aiming for success in the new economy, he has to get serious about workforce development. By 2012, 40 percent of new job growth will be in mid- to high-wage sectors. Manufacturers will continue to be a major employer, but most of these jobs will require increasingly sophisticated levels of skill. In fact, more than 35 percent of Illinois’ new jobs will require an associate degree, and 71 percent of the highest-wage jobs will require a post-secondary degree.

To attract and retain high-wage jobs, Illinois will need high-skilled workers. Yet, in Illinois, nearly 600,000 working-age adults have no high school diploma or equivalent. Sixty percent of 25-54 year olds are without an associate degree or higher. Over the next 15 years, 33 percent of the state’s labor force will retire, and the fastest-growing segments of our population who must replace them have generally lower education levels.

Skills training commitments are critical if industry’s “heartbeat,” Illinois’ workforce, is to power the economy successfully through the 21st Century. As a starting point, Illinois should invest $10 million in JTED for job seekers and incumbent workers needing new skills for the new economy, $5 million in bridge programs that lead to educational and vocational credentials required by the labor market for those with limited literacy, and $5 million for transitional jobs programs that provide real work opportunities for those with limited experience.

Illinois’ efforts must not be haphazard. What is required is the full integration of economic and workforce development policy to maximize investments in worker skill building and career advancement, infrastructure improvements and capital investments, job creation, and sustainable growth. We urge the governor and the General Assembly to commit to a “heart-healthy” plan that works for everyone: producing skilled workers, in strong businesses, with good jobs, that foster thriving communities.

Kerry Knodle is president of the Illinois YouthBuild Coalition For the Illinois Works for the Future Campaign

from the May 2-8, 2007, issue

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