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Workforce Equity Initiative helps ICC students find lifelong careers

Students of the WEI Production Welding program gather around a demonstration.
Illinois Central College
Students of the WEI Production Welding program gather around a demonstration.

Illinois Central College is in its third year of a program that is working to help more than 600 students get educated, certified and find a job.

Michelle DeVore is the director of workforce development at ICC. Since the Workforce Equity Initiative (WEI) started there in 2019, she said some lives have been changed.

“I have a truck driving student who was homeless, came in and completed truck driver training,” said DeVore. “He will still check in with me. He’s over the road so it’s hard to catch him, but he will still, when he’s in town, he’ll shoot me an email when he’s close by. And he’s now making $90,000 a year.”

The trucker was a participant in the first year of the program that offers courses in four areas: manufacturing, transportation, health services and information technology. It also includes “wrap- around” services that make it possible for students facing personal challenges to further their education.

ICC helps students get in touch with organizations that assist with everything from childcare and transportation to stipends, food and legal assistance. DeVore said the truck driver is an example of a student that used this part of the program.

“His license was suspended at the time when he first asked to come to the program,” said DeVore. “Through the wrap-around services, we were able to help him get everything fixed to where he is, making that money.”

WEI is made possible through federal funding. An $18.7 million grant is disbursed among the more than 15 Illinois community colleges that participate. The program also targets a 60% participation rate for African Americans; ICC currently stands at 72%.

Since 2019, DeVore saids there have been more than 650 WEI students, with around a 68% completion rate. According to ICC’s president Dr. Sheila Quirk-Bailey, similar programs across the country have an average completion rate of less than half that, 29%. She attributed that dramatic increase to the wrap-around services.

Among those who finish the program, DeVore said 65% of them are placed in jobs. WEI offers courses that target jobs that average more than 30% over the regional living wage.

“So, it’s not just about getting them credentials and getting them jobs,” said DeVore. “It’s about getting them jobs that are going to get them out of poverty.”

That includes jobs at more than 150 Peoria-area businesses — like Caterpillar, where WEI graduate O’Shaugnessy Boyd has worked as a computer numerical control, or CNC, machinist for a little over a year.

O'Shaugnessy Boyd is a graduate of the WEI program at ICC and a CNC machinist at Caterpillar.
Collin Schopp
O'Shaugnessy Boyd is a graduate of the WEI program at ICC and a CNC machinist at Caterpillar.

“I mainly make gears, the hob section,” said Boyd. “So the gears that go in the Caterpillar trucks or whatever, that’s what I make.”

Boyd has three kids, a 4-year-old, a 12-year-old and a 7-month-old. During the height of the COVID pandemic, as Boyd was getting further into WEI’s CNC program, childcare could be difficult to find.

“There was always some kind of cancellation, or somebody that couldn’t watch your kids,” she said. “I was like ‘Okay, yeah this looks like something I should be able to do or complete, as long as they’re giving me the resources.’”

After seeing the information about the program on Facebook, Boyd contacted ICC and was enrolled in the CNC program within a week. Contacts for childcare help were provided by the college.

“I’m a determined person and I’m going to get it done either way it goes, but this did make it easier and helpful for my life,” said Boyd. “Because, to be honest, I couldn’t afford to go back to school with three kids at home, you know? I have to take care of my kids first, so school is expensive…for them, too.”

Boyd had previously been at school for a career in nursing, but left that behind after deciding she didn’t want to work in that field. After learning the ins and outs of computer-assisted manufacturing, from writing code for CNC machines to how temperature affects the production of metal, she’s discovered a new passion in engineering.

“My life has been changed 10-folds, okay? I would say that it just gave me the confidence I need to get back,” said Boyd. “I feel like I want to go back to school for manufacturing, engineering, I want to go a little bit further. So this is that stepping stone that they gave me and eventually I will probably go back to school.”

According to DeVore, ICC has even more support services to offer these students who find a spark for a new industry they want to pursue further.

“We teach them how to apply for their FAFSA, we teach them how to work with the foundation and look for scholarships,” said DeVore. “We teach them about apprenticeships, we teach them about employer sponsorships. And again, through partnerships with the employers, we’re able to make those connections that allow them just to continue to grow in their education.”

Now, Boyd recommends the program to her friends and family, something that’s common with graduates of WEI.

“Even my personal friends have reached out,” she said. “So, when they get the time or get their schedule together, they’re going to do it also. Because some people, I have friends that do HVAC and different stuff like that and they want to get in the program. It’s a great opportunity.”

If those friends choose the CNC program, they could also be in a job at a place like Caterpillar, within around a year. They also could end up on the manufacturing floor at Alcast Company, another Peoria business that has hired multiple graduates of the WEI program.

Facilities manager Zach Bell said Alcast was helping develop an industrial maintenance apprenticeship with ICC and when the WEI program started, adding some of the graduates were a natural fit.

Alcast Company Facilities Manager Zach Bell has worked to develop a relationship between his employer and ICC's WEI program.
Collin Schopp
Alcast Company Facilities Manager Zach Bell has worked to develop a relationship between his employer and ICC's WEI program.

“They had these three that didn’t have an employer yet, so they reached out and said ‘Hey, you guys looking for people?’” said Bell. “They sent us their resumes and yeah, they fit. So we hired them.”

He described Alcast’s experience with the employees hired from the WEI program as “pretty darn good.”

“We’re used to calling up a temp agency and saying, ‘Hey we need five people for a machine shop’. Usually we get completely inexperienced people so we have to train them from the ground up. They might not have even seen a CNC machine in their life,” he said. “So if we go through the program at ICC, the WEI program, they’ve not only seen CNC machines, they know how to operate them.”

An operator of a CNC machine on the manufacturing floor at Alcast said it took him around two to three weeks to get comfortable working with the machinery. For a graduate of WEI, that time is cut down to basically nothing.

They leave the program with skills in an industry that they might never have even considered before.

“So I like that it helps out people who would probably never have a chance to get in our field,” said Bell. “Manufacturing sometimes has a bad stigma to it where they think it’s dirty, hard work, dangerous, and it’s not. I mean sure you get dirty, you’re working hard, but you make a good living at it. It’s not a crap job, it’s a career.”

However, manufacturing isn’t the only career a student can find through WEI.

Clarissa Mason is a student in the nursing program at ICC. She's just one final exam away from starting her career at Apostolic Nursing Home.

“Nursing school in general is stressful and hectic,” said Mason. “But I feel like WEI really helps you out with personal things you would need as well. Like, I was not working, I really devoted my time to school.”

Mason said that level of dedication was possible through the program putting students in touch with organizations that can help with things like rental assistance and gas cards.

It all adds up to an opportunity to focus more on coursework, taking some of the burden of day-to-day expenses off of students to pursue a career they love.

“I couldn’t say that I’m a people person sometimes,” said Mason. “But I really enjoy the feeling of helping others.”

Zachary Bratcher is another student in the program who got CDL-certified through ICC. He currently hauls a trailer for Central Transport.

“I actually started looking for that job the last week of the CDL program,” said Bratcher. “I got a call back the following week so it was a pretty fast process for finding a job.”

During his CDL training, Bratcher was able to make use of yet another wrap-around service that WEI provides.

“They get you transportation cards, if you don’t have transportation they’ll make sure you get there,” said Bratcher. “Gas prices did get pretty high this year, so why not hop on the bus just to get there, you know? I’m not too good to hop on the bus to get to where I’ve got to get to.”

Whether it’s transportation, childcare, or a stipend, the WEI program has the services that help these students into the careers they want. Like Boyd, Mason and Bratcher both said they regularly recommend the program to people they know.

You can find more information about the WEI program at ICC, including how to apply, here.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.