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Q&A: ICC president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey on the 'secret sauce' behind successful workforce development initiatives


Illinois Central College's workforce development efforts have made big headlines over the past few weeks.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded $14.6 million to ICC to jumpstart an IT workforce credential pipeline to train up 1,000 new employees in that field over the next three years.

The community college is also heralding the success of the statewide Workforce Equity Initiative (WEI), which boasts a completion rate more than double the national average for similar programs.

WCBU News Director Tim Shelley recently spoke with ICC President Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey for an update on the institution's regional workforce development initiatives.

TIM SHELLEY: $15 million was announced, actually, a couple of weeks ago, for the Good Jobs Challenge from the US EDA. And that's going to be used by ICC, Eureka and Bradley and a lot of other community organizations to really bulk up the IT workforce here in the Peoria area. Tell me a little bit about that process.

Illinois Central College president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey
Illinois Central College
Illinois Central College president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey

Dr. SHEILA QUIRK-BAILEY: Well, we couldn't be more excited. They were over 500 applications. They only funded 32. Most of the ones they funded were your traditional large scale, sort usual suspects when you have major grants. But this time the Peoria region was funded, so we couldn't be more excited.

The idea is, by picking the IT industry when we were talking to the CEO Council and the businesses, I mean, it impacts all industries. So what could we do that would really help all businesses? And then what could we do in terms of a vertical...So let's say you already have a four year degree, and you want to change out of your current industry into it because it has more upward opportunity? Well, then you may go back to Bradley, right, and do that retraining, because you already have the four year degree. What if you are changing into the industry, but you've never really ever had a full time benefited job, and you're sort of starting off fresh? Well, we built in wraparound services in the grant so we can work with people of poverty, do some boot camps for particular programs or networking and help them move forward and less than a year.

And then Eureka has an expertise in cybersecurity. So the idea would be of the 1,000 jobs. Now when we say 1,000 positions, realize that all of these folks will receive this training for free. So about half of those positions would be upskilling. So people currently in it, but they really need to update their skills if they're going to stay relevant. And if those those individuals upskill, and then maybe get promoted, the jobs they leave then are available. So the folks we're training here at ICC to enter the industry to a different level, then hopefully can backfill those positions, the goal of which there's 1,000 new credentialed individuals in this community over the next three years.

So that means I'm not going to go through this program, and then get out of it with this training and have nowhere to go with it. There's already jobs out there waiting.

Isn't that cool? Yeah. So this is all been developed based on job orders from the companies. So we know that these jobs are available, and currently going unfilled, which is why if we continue to bring new people into the industry and certify them, those jobs are ready to be moved into.

The other big announcement was (the) Workforce Equity Initiative. This is not the first year of this, but it was kind of an update on how it's been going. Talk a little bit about, you know, the progress.

The Workforce Equity Initiative is a program designed to credential people of poverty. 60% of those folks will be African American, because that's our demographic group in this region that has been left behind when we fill high skill, high wage jobs. So we're trying to tailor our outreach to the true demographical need in the community. So what we do is all of these programs can be completed in less than a year. They are all tied to jobs that have current workforce gaps, and that pay at least 30% above the living wage. So starting wages for these have to be over $20 an hour.

All of the training, and the wraparound services are provided for free through these grant funds. So based on an individual students needs, we would pay for transportation, we could pay for childcare, we a lot of these programs pay stipends. And sometimes when I say that, people wonder about that a little bit. And they say, 'Well, why would you pay someone's seat time, hourly while they go to school, especially if you just made the program available to them for free?'

And I think what people may not understand is if you're a person of poverty, working two or three part time jobs to put food on the table and pay rent, you can't stop working one of those jobs without losing that apartment, or not eating, right? But if we can support people long enough to complete those credentials, it's life changing. So I always use truck driving as the examplee because it's the shortest program. So if we can pay you $15 an hour to sit in that seat for 40 hours a week for four weeks, you can get your license and be making 50 to $75,000 a month later, that's life changing, right? HVAC and LPNs and CNAs. And so we focus on transportation, logistics and health careers and manufacturing.

So it's just an amazing program. So the big announcement in terms of outcomes, with all that being said, is that nationally, programs targeted at African Americans have a completion rate of these workforce programs have a completion rate of 29%. The completion rate for the WEI program was 62%. We're more than doubling the national average. And there had been over 500 people in the last two years in this community moved out of poverty, gainfully employed, and we just couldn't be more proud of that whole scenario.

Why do you think the WEI program here has been more successful than elsewhere?

The secret sauce is really those stipends and the wraparound services. So I think in the past, we've thought if we can get someone free tuition, then they should be able to go to school. And what we fail to realize if you if you're living in poverty, you can't stop working one of those part time jobs to make this happen. No one's happy with a life circumstance that's less than it takes to actually support them and their children. And this program actually helps them leave that circumstance and become independent members of our society. So just very exciting.

It really seems like these programs kind of pivot on having these wraparound services available, so people can actually focus on getting an education versus all the other worries that happen in life. Tell me, how did you, or how did ICC, arrive at the idea or the concept that we really have to go beyond just helping people with going to school, we also have to help them have the right environment in their lives to go to school?

Well, actually, that was something that grew out of conversations between myself and Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth. She's had this concept in her mind for a while. She worked at ICC before she actually went on to the state legislature. And when you talk to folks who are stuck in poverty, you know, they're very clear. They tell you even if I can get a scholarship, that doesn't help me because I have no way to get to school and they're very quick to point out all the things that get in the way of that completion.

So this is something that states usually don't pay for, usually don't have grants for this. In fact, the Good Jobs Challenge doesn't pay for stipends. And we know it's part of the secret sauce. So what we will do is what we call grant blending, so we can use for the IT individuals who are in WEI, we can now use the Good Jobs money to pay for that tuition. So I'll move some of the tuition off WEI into that grant, but then I will pay for the stipends at a why because that's allowable from that grant, for the people in poverty who are going into the good jobs.

So we keep trying to find creative ways. About five years ago, we were pulling in a little over $2 million a year in grants. We're up to, you know, we're well over 11 (million) now, right, which is wonderful in terms of opportunities for the community. Not so good, because their grants because at any point in time that could all go away. But we could do a whole another show about how the state should fund this in perpetuity, right? Because if we did think if we did this for seven years, how much fewer people we'd have in poverty and how many more employees we'd have in the state of Illinois, right? Because the average cost of w is $5,300. A student and you think about that, versus all the the cost of all the other services we would usually provide. So it just makes sense on so many levels.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.