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Q&A: Illinois Central College president sees workforce development as a solution to multigenerational poverty in Peoria

ICC president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey
Tim Shelley
ICC president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey

The new $12 million Workforce Sustainability Center in East Peoria is just Illinois Central College's latest move focused on training people to work in key industries.

Tim Shelley spoke with ICC president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey about why the community college is laser-focused on filling the region's largest workforce gaps.

QUIRK-BAILEY: We've had amazing career and technical programs for forever. We really do. What we've focused on in the last several years there was what are those barriers that keep people from engaging and moving forward.

So we worked with the CEO Council, we did a survey of companies. And what we find is that when people don't make it through the first three months of employment, it's usually not their technical skill. It's those essential skills, it's responsibility, it's showing up on time it's communicating with the supervisor, it's getting along with the team. So we've done a lot of work. And we can talk about that later, if you'd like with GEPeak, with an Essential Skills Program, which means we developed an entire set of workforce readiness programs.

So you meet people where they are, and you bring them forward to the point where they can either get and hold an entry level job, or now they're prepared to enter. You know, we focused on five industries where we have the biggest workforce gaps, so we prepared them to enter further credit or non credit instruction. But like I said, there was sort of that missing piece previously. And we've really focused on that to help more people move through.

TIM SHELLEY: And those five industries, if you can just talk a little bit about those, how you've identified those five industries, and what we're doing to fill those gaps.

QUIRK-BAILEY: We use the federal EMSI data. So there's census track and data that's gathered by the Employment Security Office. And then EMSI is actually a data system that mines local data. So we can actually see how many jobs in a given classification were hired last year, how many were posted? Right, so we can see real time or close to real time within six months, where those gaps are? So And historically, last eight or so years, it's been the top industries. So number one is healthcare. Right? Two is manufacturing. Then you have IT, logistics and transportation, and then education.

TIM SHELLEY: We hear some of the same things all the time. There's a nursing shortage, a welder shortage, truck driver shortage. So these are exactly the things we're talking about.

QUIRK-BAILEY: Absolutely. That's what we're talking about. And we're very blessed that working with Jehan Gordon-Booth in the Black Caucus, there's been $18 million set aside in the state of Illinois for workforce equity initiatives. So that's helping people out of poverty into waiting jobs that pay at least 30% above a living wage. So that's licensed practical nurses, that's truck driving. That's the paramedics, that's CNC programmers, that's all three levels of welding. So we've moved about 200 people a year, who qualified at the poverty level over 60% of those being African American and move them through and place them at jobs. So that's going really well for us.

TIM SHELLEY: Because at the end of the day, really, it's about not only obtaining a credential, it's about getting a job that's that allows you to provide for not only yourself, but your family as well. Right?

QUIRK-BAILEY: You know, that is absolutely an excellent point. So that's why we focus on those industries where we have gaps, to have people you know, if you're working two or three part time jobs, and you just don't currently have a skill that commands a family sustaining wage, you're stuck, right? What are you going to do? Quit one of those jobs, not be able to feed your family, so you can go back to school? You know, that you just can't do it.

So what these programs do is meet people where they are, provide them with some resources to get stable, right? To earn a job. That's why to train someone to earn minimum wage doesn't make any sense. It's got to be at least 30% above a living wage, which is more than minimum wage. Right. So right now, we're not training anybody for jobs that pay less than 17 1750. And a lot of our graduates are earning 20. And over, you know, we've got truck drivers who are walking right into $45,000 a year jobs, we have LPN, who are walking into 45, $50,000 a year jobs. So really life changing.

So I talk about all of this sometimes from an industry perspective and a jobs perspective and helping the economy. You know, when you help an individual earn that credential, you change the trajectory of their life, the trajectory of their family's lives, right? You grow the workforce, you make your businesses more stable, and you grow the economic engine that runs this region. So this is a four way win-win, right? The key to it being meeting people where they are and helping them move forward.

TIM SHELLEY: And the Workforce Sustainability Center which is, you know, ground officially broken on that in East Peoria, and expecting that to be open, you know, fall next year. How does that compliment or expand upon what you're already doing?

QUIRK-BAILEY: You know, it's it definitely expands upon what we're doing. We have, you know, if you drive one of our campuses, we've got buildings, we've got space. We don't have the type of space where you can put heavy equipment to perform some of these right to provide some of these, let me say that against that performance during work. So what we don't have is the foundations that support heavy equipment to provide the programming that is needed.

So we will be able to double those workforce readiness programs will move all of our sustainability programs there. So think geothermal, HVAC, solar. We will be able to double the size of our truck driving program. So we just didn't have the right type of space to respond. We have tripled our welding program in the last four years.

So now, I'm not putting that in that building, but when I move some of the other programs into that building to expand, I can backfill that and help with welding. So we really are designing space, specifically to the needs of the region, specifically to needs of people who need to upskill right in already are adults who have complicated lives. So all of those wraparound services. So the building is really going to mean so much for the future of the region.

TIM SHELLEY: And has the need for credentials grown as jobs have gotten more technical? How has that worked, exactly?

QUIRK-BAILEY: You know, if you take a look at the federal studies, the Georgetown Center for Education, the workforce is probably one of the premier resources. And they say, like I said, we're moving from 60 to 70. And there's going to be no such thing as a non-technical job, because everyone's going to have and whatever their sphere of expertise is, that level of technology they use to perform that function continues to rise.

So in the future, there is going to be 'oh, well, we have people who are technically competent.' Not everyone's got to be technically competent, right? The issue is, what level and with what focus, are they going to be temporally competent to determine what level of credential they need?

Some people need to get it. You know, my job requires a doctorate. Other jobs require a master. So what I say is, we need to stop focusing on the baccalaureate as the be all end all. Take a look at what someone wants to do. They may need just an industry certification, they may need a military certification, right? They may need an Associate, Baccalaureate, masters.

So in the United States, we tend to focus on just the baccalaureate, when there are a lot of jobs that require more, and there's a lot of jobs that you can earn a very good wage that require less, right? So we do our youth a disservice, when we act like one of those levels will solve all their problems, because that's really not the way the world works. Not that we don't want more people to go on from what we do on to associates on the bachelors to keep moving forward. Education is never wasted. You know, and I'm a Bradley alum, so a very big fan.

But we really want to try to reach out. We have a multiple generation poverty situation in Peoria, and in the history of this country. There's never been anything that helps someone move out of poverty, with the level of success that a credential with the labor market value has. So we're trying very hard to bring more people credentials with labor market value.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.